The Inner Journey

Judaism as a Spiritual Path
A presentation of the inner aspects of the Jewish religion and how they are connected to the Jewish understanding of the Torah, inclusive of the foundation of Jewish Teaching and how its practice is manifested in the inner life of the Jew. Also, a description of the Jewish teaching as to the nature of the individual and the ethical dimension of his/her existence. Finally, a discussion of the significance of repentance and atonement in Jewish life.

The Inner Journey. Views from the Jewish Tradition. Edited by Rabbi Jack Bemporad. Published by Morning Light Press, 2007. 323 North First, Suite 203. Sandpoint, Indiana 83864

Introduction to
The Inner Journey:
Views From the Jewish Tradition

By Rabbi Jack Bemporad

Judaism affirms that human beings are by nature religious. They require that certain basic psychological and spiritual needs be fulfilled, and it is religion that, for better or for worse, attempts to fulfill them. For in all of us there is a constant quest for some explanation of how things ultimately hang together, a sense of the whole of things. We need an explanation of the world, but most important, we strive to understand our place in it, our role in this vast cosmos of which we are a part.

Science tries to explain parts, sections, certain domains in our universe. But there is a need to put these domains together and this needs a perspective that can connect facts and values; the true, the good, the beautiful, and the holy. This is beyond the work of science. A religious perspective is needed that tries to incorporate all these values into some overall framework, to give us a sense of the world and our place in it.

Everyone has a profound need for reassurance; that things are going to be all right, that our lives are and will continue to be secure.

Also we need recognition. We need to feel that on some level we are special and worthy of love and respect, that we are important and that our lives have meaning and significance; that we are valuable human beings; that in some sphere we can and will make a difference, and we spend our lives trying to find ways that will enable us to gain a sense of self that defines our humanity.

Finally we need a feeling of connectedness. Not just to our fellow human beings and the world, but to a transcendent reality that connects us to something higher than ourselves, more noble, richer, more inclusive and valuable.

There are authentic and inauthentic ways of providing answers to these questions and one of the major teachings of Judaism is the delineation of how these ways differ.

One can act so as to ascend to a higher level, which is the path toward a fuller sense of self, toward a dimension that links us to the true, the good, the beautiful and the holy; toward the divine. Or, we can descend, giving up the higher for the lower, so as to become less than that which we potentially can become.

The prophets Jeremiah and Hosea said we take on the character of what we pursue. Jeremiah says that if we go after things of naught, then we become naught. Hosea says if we go after detestable things we become detestable. The prophets defined evil as the perversion, frustration and degradation of all that is the divine in us. Its opposite, the good, is the development of the image of God within us, giving us the strength to turn away from vanity and to aspire to a higher ethical and spiritual life. But spiritual growth, the spirituality we are concerned with, is not and cannot be reduced to a growth in knowledge. It has to do with a growth in being, a transformation of self.

Personally and socially, Judaism makes the ethical the central focus of life, and gives us a blueprint for living a meaningful life. It rejects intermediaries and hero worship of any single individual. In practicing Judaism, it is never an individual, be he Moses, Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed, who determines and defines our lives or acts as an intermediary or savior. Instead, there are many individuals—prophets, sages, ordinary people, including non-Jews, from whom we can learn how to live. As Ben Zoma says, the wise person is the one who can learn from everyone and everything.


The ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah, in Sanhedrin 4:5, states: “A single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish, scripture imputes it to him as if he had caused a whole world to perish, and if any man saves alive a single soul, scripture imputes it to him as if he had saved alive a whole world… Therefore, everyone must say, for my sake the world was created.” (Danby, Herbert The Mishna. London: Oxford University Press, 1933 p. 388)

Another Mishna in Eduyoth recounts a significant debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai about whether or not it was better for man to have been created. After considerable discussion, a vote was taken and the school of Shammai, that claimed it was better for man not to have been created, got the most votes. Thereupon the Hillellites taught that since man was already created, people should examine their past deeds and future deeds, so that one’s past would not necessarily become one’s future. However, since everyone does not know whether in his/her particular case it would have been better or not if s/he were created, everyone should live one’s life as if s/he were worthy of having been created.

Judaism teaches that if you want to raise yourself up to a Godly spiritual plane, to find the Divine spark in yourself and in others, you must honestly ask yourself, “Am I living my life in such a way that indeed, I have the right to say, ‘for my sake the world was created’?” and that I am worthy of having been created.

What Judaism teaches is that if we genuinely and authentically and radically ask this question, we will find that we cannot help but be transformed spiritually.

Spirituality is inner growth nurtured by ethical behavior, which in turn nurtures the Divine spark within us. It deals with those potentialities in our natures that elevate us in moral worth and dignity, and link us to God. The blossoming of that is what makes us uniquely human, the taking upon ourselves the tasks of character development, the paths of righteousness, the acceptance of responsibility to live an ethical life. It is the striving to realize and embody in ourselves and in others a higher, broader, enhanced way of life; for there is no spirituality without responsibility and without facing the burden of ascent. Through this work we can be transformed and transform others and the world. It is in this sense that spirituality gives us the possibility of growth in being.

The mark of the truly religious person is that he is willing to take on more than his share in the process of value enrichment, of the production and conservation of personal and group values. The prophets teach us that there is something at stake in every historical situation and we can, by acting or failing to act, make a decisive difference in our lives, in the lives of those we connect to, and in the world. This is what holiness and spirituality are all about.

The spiritual path or task begins with our awareness of those things in us that are conducive to our basest desires and motivations, and those things that are conducive to our highest aspirations of the good and Divine. It begins when we learn how to understand and manage both the “good” and “evil” we confront in ourselves – the connectedness between the spiritual, holy, and sacred in oneself, to that which transcends us, reinforces, feeds, nourishes, transforms us and lifts us to that higher spiritual plane.

If this is the true meaning of spirituality, then God’s being must be a continuing process of the Creation, conservation and enhancement of value and personality; of the true and the good, the beautiful and the holy. God must be the ground for the creation of the world and life and mind and personality and spirit; the ever continuing creation of all that is of worth in existence. Such creation of values requires not just an orderly and intelligible universe, but also a universe that especially in life and personal life manifests values, which qualify and integrate and realize this universe.

The question now emerges. How are we to accomplish this task? We need a guide, a direction, something to stabilize and integrate, in the proper manner, the all too inchoate and scattered elements that constitute our ordinary selves.


The Jewish people have a love affair with the Torah. The Torah is not simply the Five Books of Moses, or even the entire Bible. More correctly, it is the whole gamut of Jewish teaching and wisdom contained in the written law (Torah sheh B’chtav) and oral law (Torah sheh Ba’al Peh). While Torah has all too often been translated by the word law, its literal and etymological meaning is more appropriately translated as direction, instruction and teaching.

The Torah is the prism through which one strives to understand the significance of one’s self, the Jewish people, the world and the Divine. It is that body of teaching that transforms Jews into seekers of the truth that permits them to connect as a self to their people, to the cosmos, and to the Divine. It embodies an ethic that directs behavior toward all human beings, other creatures and the environment.

One sage goes so far as to say that for the sake of the study of Torah, human beings were created. But what is of interest here is that Torah must be received and understood in our own unique way. Rabbi Jose’s statement, (Pirke Avot 2:17) “…What knowledge of Torah a man acquires is personal to himself. It cannot be inherited or bequeathed.”

Herford explains that Torah is in essence a revelation of Divine Truth through the medium of the written and oral word. You may learn from your teacher how to interpret the word of Torah and may be instructed that such and such Truths are contained in it; you may be helped in your search for these Truths; you, in turn, may help others and teach what has been taught to you, but what you cannot receive of the Divine Truths revealed in the Torah—is your own inward vision of “the deep things of God.” (Herford, Robert Travis. “My Amended Translation of Rabbi Jose.” Talmud and Apocrypha: A Comparative Study of the Jewish Ethical Teaching in the Rabbinical and Non-Rabbinical Sources in the Early Century, New York: Ktav, 1971. p. 25).

Leo Baeck, in commenting on this same verse says, “The Torah is far more than a book, far more than anything that has ever been written. Therefore, it was not merely to be read and known; it was to be rediscovered anew in every word, ever and continuously to be made our own.” (Baeck, Leo. “Pharisees and Other Essays.” Essays in Tradition in Judaism, New York: Schocken Books, 1947. p. 53).

Learning Torah is a difficult task, and one that is not without pain. The process of appropriation, of making Torah one’s own, of learning it with effort and struggle, is seen in Ben He He’s statement (Pirke Avot 5:26), “according to the Tza’arah (the suffering) is the reward.” One is reminded of Cushman’s statement in reference to Plato “where things ultimate are at issue, Plato has no faith in borrowed findings, no faith in so- called truths which a man does not achieve for himself as a personal possession.” (Cushman, Robert Earl. Theropeia, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2004. XVII).

The opening words in Pirke Avot (1:1) tell us, “The Torah was received by Moses on Sinai, transmitted to Joshua, from Joshua to the elders, from the elders to the prophets and the prophets handed it to the men of the Great Assembly.”

This means that each of us must receive the Torah, and it is incumbent upon us to then transmit it. What does it mean to receive the teaching as the Rabbis taught it? Tanchuma Yisro 40a states: “Rabbi Jose ben Haninah said ‘the word of God spoke to each man in his own power. Nor need you marvel at this. For the manna tasted differently to each; to the children, to the young; and to the old according to their power. If the manna tasted differently according to men’s power, how much more the word?’”

A similar passage is even more revealing: “God’s voice went forth to each one in Israel according to his power and obedience. The elders heard the voice according to their capacity, the adolescents, the youths, the boys, the women, the sucklings each according to their capacity, and also Moses according to his capacity for it says that Moses kept speaking and God, himself, would answer him with the voice; that voice which Moses was able to hear.” (Tanchuma, Shemot 5:25 90b).

One must prepare to receive the Torah; purification, struggle and transformation are demanded from us for it to be properly understood. We must also understand the full dimensionality of the Torah and all its vastness, and what is involved in receiving it and transmitting it.

As Slonimsky put it, “…The Torah, identified with the primeval Wisdom, is the blueprint, the objectified mind of God, but also the instrumental power, i.e., both the plan and the architect, which God employs in the creation of the world and of man.” (Slonimsky, Henry “Philosophy Implicit in the Midrash,” Essays. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College, 1967. p. 24)

Just as God envisioned the Torah as His creative blueprint, and the world is constantly and creatively renewed, the Torah received by man is also continually and creatively renewed. The Torah exposes us to the depth of life. But it is the job of the individual to come to understand him/herself through it and creatively struggle to live and incorporate that wisdom into their being, into their essence, into his/her life. It is the Torah that orients us in our sense of self and motivates us to act, for Torah implies doing as well as receiving. For what good is knowledge if it is not applied?

When one applies Torah to life it becomes part of the chain of transmittal, of the tradition that entails further receptivity and creativity. Thus the Psalmist’s insight: “In thy Light we see the Light.” In this way, new dimensions of truth are perceived, shared and carried forward. You become open to something higher, and receptivity moves you to decision and action. You stand before God and the other in the light of the Torah and its wisdom, whose significance is expressed in the blessing that is made after one reads from the scroll in the synagogue, “Blessed are you, God, Creator of the Universe, who has given us the Torah of truth.”

Throughout Jewish history, the Torah was viewed as a sacred text. It was read, reread and meditated on because our forefathers believed that God revealed the truth about ultimate questions therein. Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (5:22) expresses it clearly: Ben Bag-bag said, “Turn it and turn it for all is in it. Contemplate and contemplate it and grow gray and old in it and turn not from it; for there is no better measure (middah) for thee than it.”

The Torah is not simply a history or story. It has cosmological significance and teaches wisdom that enables us to live and understand the ultimate truths of both human and cosmological creation. The cosmological significance is seen in such statements as, “…Therefore, our Sages said, all who involve themselves in Torah for its own sake are called ‘Rei’a’ – ‘friend’, it is as if he becomes a partner with the Creator, since it is he who is now maintaining the worlds with his Torah study, without which the world would revert to Tohu VaVohu (chaos) (Nefesh HaChaim 4,11-12).

The Torah contains many layers including the “Ma’aseh Bereishit,” the teaching as to Creation as well as the Ma’aseh Merkavah (lit. chariot), the Truth about God. But one must be able to receive it. One must be prepared to accept it—and its obligations. Moses, Joshua, the Elders, the Prophets and the men of the Great Assembly were qualified to do so. But what qualified them to receive it? They were prepared to accept grace of the Torah while at the same time struggling mightily and painfully to be purified (remembering the Tza’aroh, the suffering) and found worthy to receive it. (The Sabbath morning Amidah says: “Vetaher Leibeynu Le Avdecha b’Emet” (“Purify our hearts that we may serve you in Truth.”). This is part of what accepting the Torah means in all its forms.

And what is the Torah? The narrative of the Torah is just the beginning. There are layers upon layers beneath it that we study and learn to apply in order to become God’s partners in Creation.

Baeck correctly points out that “Every story in the Bible not only told something, but also meant something. It did not describe what once was; what came to be or ceased to be, it revealed something permanent or absolute; something that once was; was still, and that despite the change of scene and time remained the same.” (Baeck, L. op. cit. p. 57)

There is the Chassidic tale of Reb Moshe of Uhely, who had a dream of heaven where the great sages were studying the Talmud for eternity. What did he see? A simple beit medrash, a house of study, and the sages sitting around long tables engrossed in study. He was disappointed and asked, “Is that all there is to heaven?” And a Voice responded, “You are mistaken. The sages are not in heaven, heaven is in the sages.”

As a result, the learning is something that transforms us. There is a sense that the Torah is a manifestation of God’s grace and here, Max Brod’s definition of “grace” is strikingly appropriate. “Grace exists as to the divine power that makes possible within life what life itself can never admit by virtue of its own laws.” (Brod, Max. Paganism, Christianity and Judaism, University of Alabama Press, 1921, p. 87).

Torah learning can only be done by examining the texts from every possible perspective. This leads us to the four basic levels of rabbinic exegesis, for the rabbis understood these matters often better than we do. They believed that the Bible and whoever wrote it—be it Moses, the Prophets, Ezra, etc.—knew what they were teaching about; that they said what they meant and knew how to use the Hebrew language.

This did not limit interpretation of their words to surface text, and, in fact, the rabbis saw a four-fold level of interpretation of the Torah as expressed in the acronym Pardes—peh, resh, daled, samech—the Hebrew word for orchard or citrus grove, a place that bears fruit. Peh stands for Pshat—the plain sense or literal interpretation of the text. Resh stands for remez—which means hint—for sometimes the Bible only offers hints to those who know how to appreciate a hint. Daled stands for drash—exegesis on a multiplicity of levels: parables, allegories, homilies and explanations of meaning and sense of context—of form and substance and even philosophy. Finally, the letter samech stands for sod—literally secret—which involves the mysticism of the Bible. And “In the Beginning,” the mysterious and secret were alluded to as a process of the Creation. What was a person allowed to know? How much is revealed?

Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 states: “Do not comment [darash] on sexual matters with three (present), nor on the Work of Creation [Maaseh Bereshit = Gen 1] with two, nor on the Chariot [Merkavah = Ezek 1] with one, unless he is a sage [hakham] and contemplates what he knows…”

In his introduction to The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides writes: “Our Sages laid down the rule. The Ma’aseh Bereishit must not be expounded in the presence of two. If an author were to explain these principles in writing, it would be equal to expounding them unto thousands of men. For this reason, the prophets treat these subjects in figures and our sages, imitating the method of scripture, speak of them in metaphors and allegories because there is a close affinity between these subjects and metaphysics—and indeed they form part of its mysteries. Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case.”

Thus, the attempt to read the Torah one-dimensionally on any level without awareness of the other levels would be tantamount to truncating its meaning.

Two points perhaps should be discussed here: the difference between much of modern exegesis and rabbinic exegesis. Modern study of the Bible treats it like any other historical text—which may or may not contain great insight but which is a product of historical factors, all of them explainable from within the confines of historical explanation and historical process. Anything that does not fit into this structure is viewed as purely subjective in the sense that the individuals reporting the events may have believed them to have taken place. But what is definitive is the critical conceptual imagination of the historian.

So, for example, the Pentateuch describes how Baalam’s donkey speaks. The question as to whether the author actually believed the donkey spoke is apt only if one accepts the literal interpretation.

In this story, here is a famous seer who, with a curse, can destroy a whole people, but unlike his donkey, he cannot see an angel in front of him. Even more significantly, the great seer who had come to curse and destroy an entire people would need a sword to kill a lowly donkey. Today, it is the general opinion of scholars that even the Bible itself wrote this story as “ironical.”

But to limit this to a one-dimensional, even non-literal interpretation, is to miss what is basic to rabbinic exegesis. Pirke Avot mentions Balaam’s donkey as an example. It was one of the last creations brought to life at twilight on the sixth day of Creation, since it does not fit the order of things. More specifically, it is not enough for rabbinic interpretation to read the story as if it were solely about Balaam who was blind to the Angel of God. We are required to read the story in such a fashion so as to awaken in ourselves the sense of our own blindness. For the story is not simply about Balaam, his blindness and his pretentiousness, it is about our own blindness and our own pretentiousness to be seers (who in effect cannot see or accomplish great things through speech). Indeed, we cannot speak as truly as a dumb animal does.

Finally, it is important to note that it was easier for God to make an animal speak than to have a man change. And this is one of the most important elements in Jewish thinking which has to do with genuine repentance. While lip service is given to the Bible as the Book of Wisdom of the Western World, nevertheless, modern exegesis adapts a judgmental attitude towards it in the sense that the Bible must fit into the categories of historical investigation. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and it serves a useful, even necessary purpose. The problem arises when the historical perspective is seen as the only one and all other interpretations are seen as superfluous.

The rabbis understood Torah differently. Life had to be seen and understood within the categories, concepts, teachings and Truths of the Torah. It was viewed as the norm and touchstone of reality and thus all was seen both internally in our own lives and externally in the cosmos in terms of its teachings. As Baeck states: “…The word of the Bible was the ultimate measure of reality in history.” (Baeck, L. op. cit. p. 59).

Finally, the rabbis believed in interpretation without end, since for them “the potency of being was greater than the potency of thought.” Indeed, any verse could be interpreted in many ways since a single interpretation may only do justice to one dimension. So, we find in rabbinic commentaries such statements as “another interpretation” that can be the opposite of one interpretation with another; each one illustrating a part of the Truth. Reality for the rabbis was multi-dimensional, and different people saw it accordingly to their capacity.


The great sage Hillel was approached by a pagan asking to be taught the Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel offered a brief response that has become central in Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being; this is the essence, the rest is commentary; go and learn.”

The statement is simple enough on the surface for even a child to understand—things s/he does not want others to do to them they should not do to others. Yet one wonders, what does this seemingly uncomplicated moral statement have to do with the vast compendium and code called the Torah, a body of profound and deep wisdom? The key lies in the latter part of the statement: “this is the essence, the rest is commentary; go and learn.”

The fact is that everyone understands what is demanded of them but very few can actually do it. The task then is to go and learn how to do it. What will it take to deal with the inner struggle and attain the personal transformation that must take place, so that one can develop the state of being wherein you can treat another exactly as you would want to be treated? We can wonder why we feel this imperative is obligatory, but we also realize that we can’t reach that level unless we do our own soul-searching in order to change our own behavior. This great work leads us to inner reflection.

We act, and when we rationalize or justify our actions, we begin to understand that perhaps we should have or could have done otherwise. Why is this the case? Why is it that we know the better and want to be always treated well by others and yet, in our own actions, often do not do to others what we would want to be done to us? This is a very important question, and the Jewish tradition tries to deal with it by making a significant distinction between knowing something and really understanding it.

Knowing something is to be aware of it in general and as it applies to others. Understanding something is recognizing it in particular as it applies to us as individual beings. This concept has much to do with the genuine comprehension of freedom. Freedom, I believe, can be best understood as knowledge of a situation vis-a-vis knowledge of oneself, and knowledge of oneself vis-a-vis the knowledge of the situation.

If we do not have sufficient self knowledge to be aware of how we will act in a particular situation, we are not genuinely free. The Bible makes this distinction clear in the encounter between the prophet Nathan and King David (II Sam. 12:1-15). David had taken Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and then arranged for his death so he could marry her. Nathan went to David and told him a story about a rich man who had many ewe lambs and a poor man who had only one ewe lamb that he loved and cherished. One day, when the rich man received a guest, and instead of using one of his many animals for the meal, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb.

When David heard the story, he was furious and said, “That man deserves to die for he hath no pity.” Then Nathan confronted David and said to him, “Thou art the man.” David knew, abstractly, that it was wrong for a rich man to do what he did, but when the prophet came to him, he was given to understand that the very thing he condemned in the other he himself had done. An inner re-cognition had taken place. It is this re-cognition that is at the core of freedom.

The great Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveichik describes why Moses received the Torah twice. The first time, the Torah had been received publicly in front of the whole people, but Moses broke the tablets of the Ten Words when he saw the idolatry of the Israelites. The second time he came down with the Torah, the reception was a private receiving of the Torah anew—an internal acceptance of Torah by each individual.

The point Rabbi Soloveichik makes is that the Torah, the commands and teachings we receive openly in society, commandments that have been handed down to us through the ages, have not become a part of our inner being. These we inevitably break. We have to reintegrate and internalize through our own personal struggle each of the commandments through self-conscious transformation. Only when one understands the need for inwardness can one begin to understand Torah—the teaching, the guide—in a new and personal way.

The significance of inwardness is at the heart of the Jewish spiritual tradition and is expressed in one of the most famous Biblical passages in Leviticus. The injunction is one in a series of ethical commandments that include not standing idly by your neighbor’s blood; not cursing the deaf; not putting a stumbling block before the blind, and most importantly that one should love one’s fellow human being as oneself. A more accurate translation of love would be caring or tender concern for your fellow human being. The neighbor is like you. There is a common ground of humanity between you that must be respected.

There is more to this text. One can interpret it to mean: Be conscious of your fellow human being as you are conscious of yourself. The other also has an inward spiritual dimension as you have and you must strive to be aware of that as much as you are aware of your own inner self. Your relationship with another human being cannot be a subject to object relationship. It must be a subject to subject relationship —for another human being is not simply a means to your end. Judaism then can be described as the going from a subject object relation to our fellow human beings to a subject subject relation.

There are correlations between the way we live our lives, our thoughts, feelings and actions and the text of the Torah, as we have seen with Baalam. The Biblical stories are not simply the retelling of basic events in the lives of Jacob, Moses or Jonah, Sarah or Job. Rather, these narratives directly confront us with our own lives and our own actions. The legislation, the rules, the laws, are not only about external acts alone, they call us to inner reflection.

In the Covenant Code in Exodus (Exodus 21-23) it states that if one sees the animal of one’s enemy fall under its burden, one should help him. There is a Midrash that tells of a man who witnessed this and felt good to see his enemy in trouble. But then he looked into the Torah and realized that it was incumbent upon him to help his fellow man—even his enemy—and he went and helped his enemy.

Jewish tradition is fully aware of the discrepancy between what we know is the right thing to do and is painfully aware of our failure to do it. This is why the Bible is full of questions calling us to reflect on what we have done and who we are.

In Genesis, God calls upon Adam and Eve to reflect on their actions. He calls on Cain to explain himself. From the first, even in the Garden of Eden, the lesson was one of introspection, of being responsible. Eve first blamed the snake for what she did, and then Adam blamed Eve. Neither took responsibility for what they had done.

“And the Lord God called unto the man, and said unto him, ‘Where art thou?’” (Gen. 3:9)

“And the Lord God said unto the woman: ‘What is this thou hast done?’” (Gen. 3:13)

“And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is Abel thy brother?’ And he said, ‘I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?’ And He said, ‘What hast thou done?’” (Gen. 4: 9-10)

The question here is not whether God knows where Adam and Eve are or what Cain has done. The question is do they know? The answer to these queries and the answers Adam, Eve and Cain give have serious consequences, for taking or not taking responsibility for ourselves is a key to who we are.

What is it that we personally have actually experienced? The question is addressed to us personally and even the redemption has to be understood inwardly.

This is why when God describes bringing the Israelites from Egypt, the statement reads in the singular form: “For I am the Lord that brought you (in the singular) up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (2 Lev. 11:45). Every individual came out of Egypt—not just “the people.” One then is forced to ask what is freedom and how have I been liberated.

In the Passover service, wherein the liberation from Egypt is described, we recite the story in the context of what was done for each of us as an individual, as it states: “And thou shalt relate to thy son that day, saying, ‘this is on account of what the Eternal did for me, when I went forth from Egypt’…” (the Haggadah). The Hebrew word Mitzraim, the translation of Egypt, means a double restriction—meaning that our slavery was two-fold—spiritual as well as physical.

This connotes the element of inwardness, that one can ignore or probe. If it is probed, one can begin to ask the questions that prompt reflection: In what way have I been in Egypt? How have I been enslaved? What is it that makes me a slave and what liberates me? It brings the realization that one significant understanding of God, is that God is that being that leads me to freedom. As the text states: “I am the Lord God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”


Judaism is an affirmation of the ethical as inseparable from the holy. The most significant result of ethical living is making it possible to be near God, to know God. This connection is what the rabbis mean by spirituality.

Rabbinic passages abound that stress the centrality of the ethical. For example, “All the precepts and ritual laws (of the Torah) put together cannot equal in importance one ethical principle of the Torah” (Peah 16D) or “A ritual precept or ceremonial law is strictly prohibited if it involves the disregarding of an ethical principle.” (Sukkot 30A)

Religious ritual was created to foster closeness with God. But ritual without ethics is fruitless and ultimately idolatrous, since unethical behavior avows subservience to self-centered desires. Ritual is supposed to awaken in us a search for our true selves, the self that needs to be nourished and fulfilled.

You must ask yourself: “Are you aware that you are created in the Divine image? How are you expressing that in your own life? Or are you squandering your life in worthless pursuits?” That is the first set of questions. And the second set of questions is, “Once you’re clear about where you are, how about your brother? Where is he? And who is your brother? Is it just a person in your family or is it one who is destitute and needy, in prison, in a home somewhere that no one goes to see or care for? Who indeed is your brother?”

On the Day of Atonement, in the confession of sins, only moral sins are enumerated. Forgiveness from God and our nearness to Him are conditioned on reconciling ourselves with our neighbor. The services examine the promises we make, with the traditional liturgy rising to a crescendo in the Neilah (concluding) service that ends with the repetition of the affirmations of the true God’s attributes as compassionate, gracious, patient, full of steadfast love and truth, with the realization that these attributes are not the only attributes of God, but that they are the means to bring us closer to Him.

Hermann Cohen said, “We look for God and we find man. We look for man and we find God.” We look for and find God by imitating His attributes, but we can only do so in relation to our fellow human beings. After all, who can we be compassionate with, or gracious to, or patient with except for our fellow human beings? And when we look for man—not the self-centered, egotistic individual, but the inner being of a person as he or she strives and struggles to find meaning and truth, as we see the soul of the other, we find God the soul of all souls. Thus the ethical is indissolubly connected to the religious and the spiritual.

The ethical makes a demand on us to bring about a more humane, genuinely compassionate and just order of things. This can only come about by human beings taking upon themselves the burden of ascent. It involves the transforming of the status quo in terms of an ideal. However, such transformation requires struggle and sacrifice and often intense suffering. The rabbis understood this as the noble and righteous taking upon themselves this burden.

The midrash in confronting the suffering of the righteous specifically affirms that the righteous must suffer. Because it is only by the righteous taking upon themselves the burden of ascent, that the Messianic age can be ushered in.

Why is it that ethical and spiritual teachings are so hard to carry out? We must investigate what it is that gets in the way of our doing what we know to be right and just.


The rabbis interpreted the verse, “The imagination of the human heart is evil continually” by introducing the teaching as to the duality of man—the Yetzer Tov, the good inclination, and Yetzer Harah, the evil inclination.

It is important to keep in mind that one possible interpretation of the word ra (evil) in Hebrew, can also mean excess. So, for example, in the 23rd Psalm, the statement, “Though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil for Thou are with me,” can also be translated, “I shall not be excessively afraid.”

Similarly, in Isaiah, where it states: “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil (ra), the prayer book changes it to “creates all things,” implicitly accepting the translation to mean excess. This gives us a clue as to the meaning of Yetzer Harah. It is that inclination or more literarily that formatory power within us that wants excess, always more. It is that part of ourselves that is consumed with ambition and strives mightily to fulfill that ambition. Yet Judaism sees nothing wrong with ambition in and of itself or the desire to achieve something in one’s life for oneself and those we love. It simply condemns the self-centered ambition realized at the expense of others.

Rabbi Nachman quotes the Bible where it says “And behold, it was very good,” and notes this refers to the evil inclination. Then he asks, “How can the evil inclination be called good?” The answer is that the evil inclination is good because if one did not have an evil inclination, an inclination for achievement or excess, one wouldn’t build a house or take a wife or beget a child or engage in business.

Why is that? His answer is that the labors and skills an individual has come from rivalry with one’s neighbors. The evil inclination is the competitive element in each of us.

However, this element can easily become perverted.

Without the control of the good inclination the evil inclination by itself can be very destructive. If it is allowed to express itself unchecked it can lead to great harm and devastation. Unchecked, uncontrolled, unregulated and unmanaged, it leads to idolatry and death.

It is the dynamic force within us and has great strength. It makes us want to succeed at the expense of someone else. It is the part that makes us want to triumph over others. The evil inclination is the competitive self, the impulsive self; the self-righteous impulse that immediately gets angry and hurt when anyone says the slightest thing that can be interpreted as an insult.

There are numerous Rabbinic comments to illustrate this: Talmud Bavli Shabbos 105b says: “Such is the art of the evil inclination: one day it bids a man, ‘Do this’; the next day, ‘Do that’; until finally it says to him, ‘Go worship idols.’ And he goes and worships them.”

Talmud Bavli Bava Bathra 16a says: R. Simeon ben Lakish said: “Satan, the evil inclination and the Angel of Death—all three are the same thing” R. Simeon ben Lakish also said: “A man’s evil inclination grows in strength from day to day and seeks to slay him as it is said, ‘the wicked watches the righteous and seeks to slay him’ (Psalm 37:32) and but for the Holy One who is his help, he could not withstand it, as it is said ‘The Lord will not leave him in his hand.’ (Psalm 37:33)”

It is important to understand that idolatry is misconceived if it is seen as simply the worship of wood and stones or images. Rather idolatry is the having of a false sense of the Holy.

It is the making sacred of all those things, objects, persons, institutions that have no right to be sacred. It is anything that makes you feel good for the wrong reason. It gives you a false sense of self and your place in the scheme of things. An idol is anything that frees you from what makes you responsible.

The Torah, in its ethical and ritual manifestations, enjoins us to continually guard ourselves against the temptation to attribute holiness to the projection of our fears and desires. An idol is a false hope. It is the taking of something that is finite, limited, and time bound, and giving it the status of the ultimate and eternal.

That is why Judaism tells us not to worship other gods—that is gods that are other, that is foreign to our own welfare.

That is why Judaism tells us not to worship images—and it does not necessarily mean here sculptured images—but it means our own false image of ourselves that we worship.

The worst form of idolatry is the acting as if we are the center of the universe and that all is there to serve us and to cater to us as if we were divine; it is the taking of ourselves and all extensions of ourselves as the true sacred without any consideration for the claims of others; it is not recognizing our proper place in the scheme of things. The proper understanding of idolatry and its rejection can be seen in the Talmud’s definition of a Jew as “Whoever repudiates idolatry.” (Tractate Megillah 13a).

On the other hand, the Yetzer Tov, the good inclination, is the formatory power for good—meaning completion. It is that part of oneself that seeks the truth about oneself and strives to be true to one’s best self and live with integrity. The good inclination is the cooperative self. It’s the cooperative impulse, that part of us that genuinely wants the best, not just for ourselves, but for everybody. It’s that part of our self that is the loving, caring, giving part that doesn’t worry about whether that caring or loving and giving is going to be recognized, but rather is done because we think it’s the right thing to do. It is not done for personal aggrandizement.

It is at the heart of what it means to be a human being according to Judaism: Yes, it’s important for us to have this tremendous urge to succeed, but at what price? That is when the Biblical questions apply directly to us. Where are you? What have you done with your life? Because we so often fail to overcome the worst in ourselves, repentance takes a central role in Judaism.

It is one of the archetypal ideas established before the creation of the world and is the central focus of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Baeck clearly indicates its importance in his classic work, The Essence of Judaism (p.163), he states,

Man can ‘return’ to this freedom and purity, to God, the reality of his life, if he has sinned. He is always able to turn and to find his way back to the Holy, which is more than the earthly and beyond the limitations of his life: He can hallow and purify himself again; he can atone. He can always decide anew and begin anew. For man there is always the constant possibility of a new ethical beginning. The task of choice and realization, of freedom and deed, is never completed. ‘Return’ – thus does Judaism speak to men as long as they breathe; ‘return’ – but not as misunderstanding has interpreted it, “do penance” this return, this teshuvah, is the atonement of which man is never bereft and in which he is always able to renew his life.

The teaching that the past can be redeemed, if it can be connected to a present that endeavors to redeem it, is at the heart of the Jewish teaching of repentance.

We need to repent every time we fall short of embodying the basic virtues of Judaism. There is a specific virtue for every relationship—and the proper virtue for the relationship between human beings is justice. The most important thing that you have to think about in terms of your relationship with your fellow human beings is the question of whether it is a just, fair relationship. When I do something, am I doing something that is just or something that is unjust? Am I lying? Am I deceiving myself and others, or am I acting justly?

The virtue for the relationship with oneself is Peace. Shalom. Now peace doesn’t mean what the English word, which comes from the Latin pacem, means—that externally it should be somehow calm but internally it can be a torrent and a torment—like, for example, the Pacific Ocean. Peace, in the true Hebrew meaning of the word means integrity and wholeness, a unification in ourselves, so that we are not at war within ourselves, we have a kind of integrity about ourselves. The rabbis said you can’t have justice with your fellow man until you are at peace with yourself.

For until you are at peace with yourself, you’re not going to relate to other human beings with any sense of integrity or peace, but you are always going to relate to the other person in terms of wanting something that your self lacks, that your self needs. And you want to manipulate and manage and rearrange the nature of that relationship in terms of the level of integration in yourself.

The fact of the matter is that if a person is not at peace with his/her self, the only relationships you can have with your fellow man is one of fear on the one hand or desire on the other. It is only when you are at peace with yourself that you don’t ask for anything that you do not deserve, and you don’t function out of need. You are not afraid. You can see your fellow human being as he or she truly is.

How does one come to peace with one’s self? The rabbis say, strangely, that the only way you can be at peace with yourself is if you have the proper relationship to God. And the proper relationship to God is not justice, it is love.

Now why is that? Because only if you love God and firmly strive to do the will of God, to imitate his attributes, then a new dimension will emerge wherein there is a correlation between the individual and God so as to produce an enhancement, a connection that leads to peace.

Figuratively, we speak of this as God’s loving us, but it is actually our love of God that melts the evil inclination in us. By loving God we understand that God creates us, that God nurtures us, renews us, and melts the stony heart within us.

On the Day of Atonement, when we look at the worst elements in ourselves—listing all the sins that we may have committed, both individually and collectively—never once is there mentioned a doctrine that our beings are sinful. We may do sinful acts, but we are not sinful beings. On the contrary, Judaism affirms that the soul that God gives to human beings is pure. And Judaism affirms that even as the soul is pure when entering upon its earthly career, so can man, through repentance, purify it and return it, in its pure form, to God.

We are here to do God’s will. We are here to strive in the best possible way we know how to recognize and to overcome the worst in ourselves. As we have seen, Judaism is a way of facing the truth about ourselves, meaning that we honestly face the worst in ourselves and change what we do. By overcoming the worst in ourselves, we take upon ourselves the tasks and the burdens of ascent, and make the world somehow a little better than we found it. Can God count on us to overcome our Yetzer Harah, to overcome our self-centered, self-righteous and competitive selves? Can we really find that peace within that comes from the love of God that enables us to be just and fair to our fellow man? And in doing that, can we bring real peace to the world?


The love of God is central to Judaism, and this centrality is expressed in the Shema, the most significant and essential prayer of Judaism. It is the first prayer a child learns. It is said first thing upon arising in the morning, repeated in the morning and evening service during the day and repeated again at bedtime. It is inscribed in phylacteries (tefillin) and in the mezuzot (amulets) affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. They are the last words that escape from a man’s or a woman’s lips as s/he is ready to confront death.

“Hear O Israel, (that is Understand O Israel) God is our God, God is One.
“You should love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Why is this particular passage in the book of Deuteronomy so essential? Why is it seen as the creed of Judaism? Why is it the one-sentence definition of a Jew?

The rabbis picked this particular verse for a profound reason. The first thing that impresses us when we read those words and when we say these words is that we are not the center of the universe. God is the center of all Creation. If we are to love God with all of our very being, with all of our very might, and all of our very essence, we must accept that we are on the periphery and God is at the center. The rabbis were very wise psychologists and they knew that human beings think they’re at the center and everything else is on the periphery.

The love of God and the love of our fellow human beings are corollary. We love God through our fellow human beings and we love our fellow human beings by loving God.