Two-Rivers Judaism (non-fiction)

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I’m worried about the future of Judaism. I’m worried because Torah observant Jews seem to have such a hard time with what should be a simple question: “Why do we do this?”

Unfortunately, more and more, the answer I’m seeing is just “because.”

“…because people before us did it and they must have had a good reason.”

“…because G-d said so and so we shouldn’t bother to understand.”

“…because it fits my existing (libertarian, social justice ….) worldview.”

Or, most fundamental of all, “We shouldn’t, because it makes no sense.” 


Of course, not everything needs to make sense; we do have the concept of the fear of G-d. We do act even if we don’t understand. Nonetheless, I am concerned we abandon far too much to the world of ‘mystery.’ The risk is that it leaves us without an overarching value system capable of defining us.

Without having a better answer for “Why?”, we ultimately end up handicapped in our mission to connect humankind and Hashem.

The point of this brief piece is to share an answer to this question. It is a pretty simple answer which I believe provides a framework for understanding the full scope of laws and commandments in the Torah. As you read, I expect you to disagree with me on the details. But do me a favor and don’t put this down just because you see things differently on point x or y. This is only a sampler, not an in-depth defense.

Instead, read the whole thing and then dismiss it afterwards 🙂

The Foundation

Okay, here’s the first bit: G-d creates the world and then rests on Shabbat, making it holy. Then he breathes His spirit into Adam. Adam is supposed to act in G-d’s image and feel the spirit of G-d within Him; pulling him into a relationship with the Divine. But G-d doesn’t dictate Adam’s path. To have a relationship, we can’t be robots. Instead, in his little garden (which is full of potential), he plants two spiritual rivers. The first of these rivers is called Pishon, which means ‘spread out’. This implies the river has influence on the world around it. It surrounds a land of change (based on the root chol). It has within it good (tov) gold with stones of distinction (bedel from the root hevdel) and stones that connect the human and the divine (the shoham stone that brings together aspects of the priests’ garments). This is an awesome river. It describes a process of creation (G-d calls things ‘good’ when He creates them), of distinctions and of connection to G-d. And, it seems to run in a circle; building virtues upon virtues.

The other river is, well, different. It is called gichon, which means ‘belly’ or ‘stomach’ or even ‘move slowly’ or ‘slither’. It is a lowly river, representative of base desires and a lack of drive. It surrounds a land called Kush, which can mean ‘darkness’ or ‘inferiority. Darkness, by the way, is what defines the time when G-d isn’t creating. Darkness isn’t good or productive. This is the alternate, a place without productivity, without goodness and without connection to the divine. It also flows in a circle, but is more like a drain.

Basically, we can choose to create in the image of G-d and grow continually towards Him, or you can be lazy and shiftless and circle the drain.

Adam chooses path #2. He doesn’t build or plant or create anything. So, Adam eventually gets introduced to a nice little snake and he learns about evil first hand. The message: it is better for man to know good and evil and be able to relate to G-d than to know neither and be forever distant.

I made a little diagram of these two paths. One runs in a virtuous circle, converting potential to functional reality and functional reality to timelessness and timelessness to a relationship with G-d and a relationship with G-d back into spiritual and material potential. The other runs one way. It starts with distance from G-d, the loss of time, material loss and then eventually loss of potential.

The Torah is there to help us follow the first river while resisting the pull of the second.

Everything fits in there: all the laws, statutes and so on. How? keep reading…

The Character of Change

The Jewish people exist to help the world follow the waters of Pishon. But changing the world is hard. And it starts with changing yourself. The forefathers all do this. They start with certain attributes and then they learn something new; something that enables and defines them. Avraham starts with a love and desire to help mankind but learns to love and fear G-d. Yitzchak starts with a desire for the concrete and material until he sees the immaturity of Esav and learns to value of the immaterial relationship with G-d. And Yaacov starts wanting to burn everything down in order to change it and then loses everything. From that, he learns that he can create far more lasting change by building on what exists. Yosef learns to be empowered by giving G-d credit, and Yehuda learns that responsibility is key to leadership. Interestingly, while there are great women in these generations, most of them don’t seem to change like the men do.

Our job begins with internalizing the lessons learned: we must fear G-d, value the immaterial, seek to change rather than destroy, give G-d credit and take responsibility for our choices. These are the middot (character attributes) we will need in our mission.

Amalek represents an opposite case. They bear a grudge against the Children of Avraham for his inaction. They let it define them, eliminating their ability to follow Pishon. We have an obligation to eliminate their memory – their ability to remember – so a more positive path can be pursued.

Space for G-d

In order for us to relate to G-d, we have to make space for Him. Even Avraham was challenged by this. G-d said “I took you out of Ur Kasdim (literally ‘destroyers of light’)” and Avraham demanded proof of G-d’s promises. Avraham’s perspective is understandable: G-d told him to go and he went. So, G-d decides to make it obvious. He promises Avraham we’d be enslaved. When He then brought us out, we’d know He brought us out; because we were slaves and had no volition of our own. Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way. We worship the Calf, which is made out of earrings which represent our ability to hear each other. It is a G-d of communal self. This is why we worship by playing – we are serving ourselves. We worship ourselves as our own redeemers. And we haven’t stopped. We were the weakest of nations in 1945, but we increasingly worship ourselves as the true deliverers of our own salvation. The problem is, if we don’t make space for G-d (the centermost step in the diagram), then everything else is pointless and we are pulled down the path of Gichon.

Tzarat (Biblical leprosy) helps keep us open to G-d. It punishes those who think too highly of themselves and forces them to seek the expertise of experts for expiation. Walking around in a leper colony saying “I’m unclean” (when everybody else already knows it) is about taking yourself down a notch and thus opening a space for G-d. It starts off white (defined in the reading as the color of purity) and is a reminder that we are not so pure. Only later, once we have ignored it, does it turn red and green and begin to destroy our reputations and possessions.

Practical Laws

The practical laws are about preventing material destruction and enabling material creation (melacha). They form the basis needed for a society to be holy. Some ‘practical’ laws aren’t quite that. Laws of charity are not about handouts supporting people, but about enabling people to experience the waters of Pishon while protecting them from Gichon. We leave corners of fields so that the poor can have the experience of harvesting and processing their food, pushing back against risk and material loss while they experience the conversion of potential into functional material. Likewise, we don’t charge interest because we symbolically resist the loss of time. Always, we render the spiritual in physical terms and thus use the physical to create spiritual reality. This is how we bridge between the world of Hashem and the world of man.

Mishkan & Kohanim

The Mishkan (Tabernacle) is the tool for converting functional material into the timeless. It does this by bringing the material and spiritual together: G-d’s dwells within the people spiritually and we render that relationship physically. How? The three major objects represent G-d’s revelations. The Menorah is a representation of the burning bush (it burns but is never consumed). The Lechem Panim (bread of faces or showbread) represents G-d’s revelation to the people with giving of the Ma’an. And the Aron (Holy Ark) represents the revelation at Mount Sinai. These are the divine parts.

All of this is surrounded by curtains and pillars. We are called a Mamlechet Kohanim (Kingdom of Priests) and Goi Kadosh (Holy people). The curtains, which have angels close to G-d (Keruvim) on them and which are formless without law represent the Goi Kadosh. There are 53 pillars in one layer of the Mishkan walls and 56 in the other (excluding the gate). Likewise, there are 53 laws and 56 outcomes in the laws in the Torah reading before the description of the Mishkan. This represents the Mamlechet Kohanim. Taken together, the Mishkan is a very literal representation of G-d’s revelations surrounded by the people. It is thus a crossing point between the physical and the spiritual. Many of the laws of Torah are precisely that – the rendering of spiritual concepts in the physical world.

On the side, the land of milk and honey isn’t simply an extension of this. Honey represents short-term fuel for creation and milk (the material of physiological dedication to the next generation) fuels the timeless relationship with G-d. Milk and honey provide the fuel for the process of goodness and holiness but the land is not independently classified as holy.

Kohanim (priests) are defined before the giving of the Torah as those who draw close to G-d. In this role, they are the actors in the Mishkan. Their job is to convert the material into the spiritual. Their clothes represent this. They have three major garments: the Choshen (breastplate) represents the people being brought before G-d; the stones of the Jewish people are encased on the Choshen. The Meil (blue robe) represents G-d coming before the people. It is pure techelet. Techelet is the color of sky. Until Sputnik there was no death in the sky and so it represents the total purity only G-d can have. And there is a prohibition on tearing a hole for the neckline, reinforcing this idea of losslessness. The last major bit of kit is the Ephod (over-garment) which wraps around the Kohen, encasing and restricting him. When the Kohen walks, he is carrying the names of the people – embraced by G-d – on the straps of the ephod (Ex. 28:12) as part of the Ephod. The ephod reminds the Kohen that he is carrying the relationship between the people and G-d on his shoulders.

Offerings (Korbanot or closenessers) are about bringing us closer to G-d by converting our material reality into a spiritual one by distinguishing them. We can’t bring fruit (generally) or wild animals because they don’t represent our creative effort. Some offerings work by bringing us up the waters of Pishon while others (sin offerings, I’m looking at you) defend against the waters of Gichon. Critical to understanding the offerings is that pigeons and doves (really, closely related) are the only Kosher birds that produce crop milk. Milk uses the material to enable the timeless. This is what the sacrifices are all about.

The Mishkan can be understood as the beating heart of the people. Realization is pumped into it – often literally in the form of blood brought – and potential is pumped from it in the form of blessing. It enables the cycle of Pishon.

How can killing things be holy? It is about potential. There is no higher potential for an animal than helping to form the relationship with G-d. Certainly, it is better than just being part of a hotdog. We get closer to G-d simply by being willing to admit this.

Kashrut (Kosher Laws)

Holiness is about the cycle of Pishon, but you have to destroy to live. The key is to always be raising the function of things – so on net you are creating. Of course, some things have such distance from G-d that internalizing them is incompatible with G-dly values, pushing you away from G-d. Kashrut represents a balance.

First, birds. The rules here are about maintaining the center of the diagram. As I mentioned before, there is no death in the sky, so birds are symbolically closer to G-d. In this case, there is no rule because when you are close to G-d, He sets the rules. Thus, we only eat those species G-d defines as okay. This makes space for Him.

Okay… fish. Waters convey spirituality (you got that by reading the first bit). Fish live in water. We eat fish with scales to separate from the mass of waters and fins to provide clear direction through them (h/t Shaya Cohen). We don’t engage with spirituality and let it take us wherever it wants. The waters of Gichon (and many other value systems) await. We need to choose our own adventure.

Insects? They teem, providing change by ‘going on multiplication’ (arbah, which can’t mean four because they tend to have six legs). They have no individual purposefulness and act only through group multiplication. Jointed legs (like ours) represent willfulness. Grasshoppers have them and can thus be eaten. But because their legs throw them into the sky like birds, G-d names which species are acceptable; just like with birds

And finally, animals. Animals are closest to us and thus have to embody creation (hands) and rest (cud). Chewing cud indicates a lack of waste, which connects to purity and timelessness.  Check. But if we ate things with hands, we’d actually be destroying animals with too much creative potential. So, we compromise: split hooves represent hands without having all the power of hands (or even paws). And the closer animals get to us, they more impure they become – because they are close to us but lack critical potential.

Oh, and meat and milk? We don’t combine the loss of death with the holiness of milk.

Tamei, N’ida & Chukim

These whole categories of laws are dedicated to two jobs: stopping us from sliding away from Hashem down the waters of Gichon and helping us spread the waters of Pishon to the rest of the world by representing the process of Pishon.

How? Let’s start with the classic Chok (statute): Parah Aduma (the Red Heifer). After we encounter death, our creative potential is limited. We’ve seen the end of potential and it damages us. What does a red cow have to do with it? Dam (blood) unites our cells and gives them life and potential. ADam (man) has will and can thus convert potential into reality. Adama (land) is the canvas for Adam. It is a feminine word with the same root and implies potential. In other words, you need will and potential to create something. A Parah (female cow) represents a nation’s potential (bulls represented lots of Mediterranean nations). By being Aduma (red, but also a feminine form of ADam) and never being worked, it represents maximized potential. A Parah Aduma thus represents the nation’s open-ended reservoir of potential. Being sprinkled with the diluted ashes (and some other ingredients) on the day of life (day 3) and the day of spiritual purpose (day 7) enables us to have our potential restored. This is about fighting back against the decline on the Gichon side. Of course, the person who processes the animal is unclean because they killed just to handle our impurity – not a functional rise.

Parah Aduma isn’t alone. All of Tamei (impurity) is connected to a loss in potential. N’ida (the laws of family purity) are about separating a man’s creative reproductive will from a woman’s lost potential. We don’t squander will in that way. In fact, many many chukim (statutes) are about symbolically resisting a slide down the Gichon river. They work by pushing back against symbolic losses of potential – even if the process of doing so violates other value systems.


We do not relate to G-d as individuals, but in a generational chain. The sexism in the Chumash (the whole get issue is from the oral Torah) is about preserving the chain of will and potential in the timeless relationship with G-d. If a woman has multiple partners, the clarity of her husband’s reproductive will is denied; is the child his? However, if a man has multiple partners he does not rob his wife of her access to his reproductive will (this is not a recommendation for adultery).

On the flip side, in the cases of seduction or assault of an unmarried woman, a man uses the woman’s reproductive potential. Her father (again with reproductive will) has the ability to force him to marry her. To understand this, consider that under Indian law, promising to marry a woman in order to sleep with her (and then not honoring that vow) is rape. And under this law, the woman can force the man to marry her. This law protects her potential so it can’t be taken without recourse, even by deception. Of course, this isn’t talking about women’s will generally, just reproductive will. And women have since acquired negative reproductive will, resulting in fundamental transformations we are only beginning to understand.

The Chumash is protecting the man’s reproductive will and the woman’s reproductive potential – reflecting the male and female ability to create the timeless. Of course, we can create the timeless in other ways; ideally partnerships should empower that, building on the will and potential of both husbands and wives.


The holidays tend to focus on the center of the diagram. They are, after all, Holydays. They are about converting the material to the spiritual.

Pesach (Passover), by reiterating Hashem’s rescue of us, leaves space for Him in our lives. Matzah shows how incapable we are; even though we had 14 days warning, we didn’t think to make a sandwich for our trip. It shows our true affliction. G-d alone rescued us and by realizing this, we open the center of the diagram.

Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) is about celebrating G-d blessing of us based on the relationship we’ve enabled. We take the fruit of the ground (His blessing) and bring them as an acknowledgement of those blessings. It reinforces the positive cycle.

Rosh Hashana is about hearing the presence of Hashem in the Shofar and using it to draw closer – both pushing up the waters of Pishon and resisting Gichon. The offering of a calf recalls Avraham’s meal for the angels who came to Sarah, recalling the path of Pakad (or getting what you deserve). The offering of a ram recalls the path of Zocher (remembrance of a divine contract) by recalling the Akeidah (Sacrifice of Isaac). And the seven lambs recall the path of Teshuvah (Repentance) through Avraham and Avimelech’s joint sacrifice.

Rosh Chodesh, Pesach and Shemini Atzeret have the same offerings – keying in the common thread of reinforcing the waters of Pishon.

Yom Kippur is also about resisting Gichon; not by recognizing the presence of Hashem, but by relying on our own introspection and Hashem’s intercession (sweet alliteration, eh?). Chata (a kind of sin) represents damage to the timeless and the material world. We seal (kaper) against this so that we do not suffer from Avon. Avon is sin which weighs on our souls, damaging their potential. How does it work? We use goats, which represents Israel’s free spiritedness. By sending one goat to support the timeless relationship with G-d and the other to the ‘goat of disappearance’ (Az-Azel) we reemphasize the paths of the two rivers – one to the divine and the other to nothing. Oh, and we also ask for forgiveness from our Avonot (sins that have already damaged us), so that their weight can be lifted from us.

Sukkot (the Festival of Booths) is about celebrating the relationship we have restored with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The four species are key.

Pri Etz Hadar means ‘fruit of a beautiful tree’. Trees are divine blessing. The most beautiful tree is the covenant with G-d; and the Torah is its fruit. This represents G-d’s greatest gift to us.

The Anaf Eitz Avot represents Hashem’s mysterious desire to embrace us (Avot being the gold braid that surrounds the stones of Israel on the breastplate).

Kapot Temarim are ‘palms of Tamarim’. Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Yehuda, took her life into her own hands to be a part of the people. This represents our desire to be with Hashem.

Arvei Nachal is the ‘brook willow’. It can also literally mean ‘mixed stream.’ We are G-d’s Nachal – spreading His spiritual waters and mixing the human and the divine.

These four species represent G-d’s gift to the Jewish people, our gift to Him and our mutual desire to be together. On Sukkot, we celebrate that relationship, waving around the representation of that relationship and celebrating with G-d.

But it doesn’t stop there, because our gift to Hashem isn’t complete. We offer bulls to represent our bringing of the nations of the world to G-d, and we double the offerings of Rosh Hashana, seeking a divine connection for them.

And Shemini Atzeret? It too is a celebration, but there is no missing element. We are so close to Him we don’t need any ritual objects or any reminders of our shortcomings.

Our Life as a Nation

The final book of the Chumash is focused on our life as a nation, not just as individuals. It spells out our relationship on this level. The basic gist? We have to follow the waters of Pishon and draw close to G-d and then spread this relationship so that the rest of the world can be blessed through us. Sometimes, it won’t be easy; after all, they follow other gods and value systems. So, we have a formula to help us: Love G-d (building a desire to be close to Him), walk in His ways (creating and using that creation to establish holiness) and then do the Mitzvot (Commandments), Chukim (Statutes) and Mishpatim (Laws) as they will help us follow in the waters of Pishon.

The alternative? Well, we can be a positive lesson or a negative one: if we fail to walk in the path of Hashem, our suffering will be a lesson to the world.

Here and Now

Today, we should be looking for opportunities to walk in G-d’s path not just through Mitzvot, but in other aspects of our lives. After all, we can do a lot of G-d-loving and Walking in His Path before we learn to leverage G-d’s laws to fast-track the process. We could also practice a lot of Mitzvot and spend huge amounts of energy arguing about them without actually connecting them to the process of goodness, holiness and building a divine relationship. Either way, we lose out.

As part of this, we don’t need our whole nation to walk the same way. Parts of our nation can carry out different parts of His Path and we as a people can fulfill our mission even if our compliance as individuals is focused on various aspects of the process. We need to help the creators know that they exist to empower the holy and to let the holy know that they exist to empower the creators.

As part of this, our governmental systems can encourage the whole package: our tax and finance and welfare systems can resist Gichon and encourage Pishon and our national Shabbat can do the same. And we can create cities to share these ideas with other nations. We can use modern tools to connect with these ancient values. 

I don’t know all we can do, or how to even begin doing it. But I’ll bet you have some ideas (and I’d bet you’d like to argue about this with me – I’d love it, we’d both learn). But I think that together we can fulfill our mission, connect to G-d and encourage the rest of the world to build on our relationships with Him.

It can be fulfilling to all. And in the end, we can satisfy Avraham’s desire to bless the families of the world through his descendants.

Oh, one last question: I may have structured it a differently or explored individual aspects in different ways, but don’t you think you knew all of this before you even read it?

Perhaps the Torah really is in our hearts, to know it.


p.s. Other nations can also have a relationship with G-d. But their role is different than ours. They don’t do so by symbolically representing the waters of Pishon.

p.p.s. I want to thank Rabbi Eric Kotkin. His work on diagraming the grammar of the Chumash (on, a site we collaborated on) has been instrumental in unlocking my own understanding of the text. That said, he might not agree with any of this.

If you enjoyed this, share it. More importantly, comment below – let’s learn from discussion. This is not a static piece but one I expect to update as I learn.


Image: Alessandra Kocman, Flickr

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (, a thriller about creating hope from war.

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