Sunday, August 03, 2008

Parshat Devrarim

Here is the summary of this week's parsha - Devarim.

You can also find a d'var Torah by me here:

and a translation of a section of Tosefet Bracha on the parsha here:

Have a great week.


Summary of Devarim

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) contains Moshe's final words to the nation before they enter into the Land of Israel. Most of the book contains a review of the laws that they had already received from G-d until this point. Moshe begins by summarising their sojourns in the desert. He hints to the sins that the Jews had committed throughout their journey, by listing the place names where those sins occurred.

Moshe retells how he was unable to provide for the nation alone, and G-d commanded that he appoint leaders over the people, to provide judgement and leadership on a local level. He reminds the people of the sin of the spies, how they listened to the evil report that the spies brought back when they scouted out the Land of Israel and they refused to trust G-d and enter into it. Only Yehoshua bin Nun and Calev ben Yephuneh remained from that generation to enter into the land, because they remained firm in their faith.

The Israelites had wandered through the desert for another 38 years. Finally they journeyed towards the land of Se'ir, but the children of Esav refused to let them pass through their country. G-d also commanded that the Israelites not wage war on the Moavites, and they had to journey around their country also.

As the Jews approached the Land of Israel, Sichon and Og led out armies to battle against them. With the help of G-d the Israelites defeated them and conquered their lands. The tribes of Reuven and Gad asked to remain on the East side of the Jordan river and claim their inheritance there, where they saw there was good pasture land because they had large flocks and herds of animals. Moshe gave them this land on the condition that they enter with the other tribes into Israel and help them conquer the land before returning home to their families and their inheritance.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chukat Summary

For a d'var Torah on the parsha written by me click on the link.

For a translation of a section of Tosefet Beracha (by the author of the Torah Temima) click this link.

Summary of Parshat Chukat

G-d commands the Children of Israel about the laws of the Red Heifer. It must be completely red without any blemish, and never have been placed in a yoke. It shall be slaughtered outside of the sanctuary, and some of its blood sprinkled in the direction of the Sanctuary. It shall then be entirely burnt, and cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread thrown into the fire. The Kohen who performs this ceremony becomes tamei (ritually impure). The ashes should be gathered and placed outside the camp for safekeeping. The person who gathers the ashes also becomes tamei. Anyone who comes into contact with a corpse becomes Tamei, and must purify themselves by being sprinkled with water containing the ashes of the Red Heifer on the third and seventh day of the purification process. The person who sprinkles the ashes becomes tamei. Anyone who enters the Temple without undergoing this purification process will receive karet (be spiritually cut off). If there is a dead body in a room, any person or thing that is in that room, or enters into it becomes tamei, and requires purification with the ashes of the Red Heifer.

In the fortieth year in the desert, in the first month, the Children of Israel arrived at Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin. Miriam dies and is buried there. There is no water for the people to drink, and they gather against Moshe and Aharon, complaining that they are about to perish. G-d instructs Moshe to take his staff and speak to the rock in the presence of the entire congregation. Moshe and Aharon gather the congregation, but instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe hits it twice. Water comes gushing out, but G-d punishes Moshe and Aharon for disobeying Him. Because they didn't sanctify G-d in the eyes of the nation, they will not be able to bring the Jews into the Land of Israel.

Moshe sends emissaries to the king of Edom asking permission to pass through their land. The king of Edom refuses and threatens war against the Jews.
The Jews arrive at Mount Hor. G-d instructs Moshe to lead Aharon and Elazar his son up the mountain. Moshe dresses Elazar in Aharon's priestly robes, and Aharon dies there. The entire nation mourns Aharon's death for 30 days. The Canaanite king of Arad wages war against Israel and takes a captive. Israel vows that if G-d will help them to defeat the Canaanites they will consecrate all the spoils of victory to G-d. G-d hears the prayer of the people, and delivers the Canaanites into their hands.
The people journey on, and once again complain that they have no substantial food or water. G-d sends serpents to attack the people. and a large multitude die. The people come to Moshe, admit their sin and ask Moshe to pray for them. G-d instructs Moshe to make a serpent and place it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten should look at the serpent and they will live. Moshe makes the serpent (Nachash) out of copper (Nechoshet).

The Torah lists the journeys of the Children of Israel.
After passing through valley of the river of Arnon the Children of Israel sing a song of thanksgiving to G-d for the miracles which he performed to them there. (The Torah doesn't explain the miracles, but we have a tradition that He miraculously killed the Emorites who were waiting there in ambush for the Jews.)
The Jews ask permission to pass through the land of Sichon, king of the Emorites. He refuses and wages war on them. They defeat Sichon and take possession of his land. Israel settles in the land of the Emorites and Moshe sends spies to Yazer. They conquer its suburbs, and drive away the Emorites remaining there. They then turn toward Bashan. Og, the king, comes out to fight them and he and his people are totally destroyed. The Children of Israel take possession of his land. They then journey and encamp on the plains of Moav on the bank of the Jordan opposite Jericho.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Parshat Korach

Korach's main complaint against Moshe was that there should not be a single leader for the nation, "For all the congregation are holy." (Bamidbar 16; 3). He was against what he saw as a dictatorial theocracy, and instead claimed to be advocating equality for all. This, however, was only a pretext for his true motivation, which was to become the new leader of the nation. This is why he accepted Moshe's challenge that he and all those who joined his rebellion should bring an incense offering, and let G-d choose who the leader should be. Despite his claims of equality, Korach personified the famous line from ‘Animal Farm’ that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others".

Not only Korach, but all those who followed him also openly espoused equality, but in reality were aiming for personal political power. This is why the Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers 5; 17) states: "What is an example of an argument that is not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his congregation." Were his followers supporting Korach, the Mishna should have said the argument of Korach and Moshe. We see from here that there was more fighting between Korach and his followers than between them and Moshe, and this is because they each wanted to be in charge.

Maor VaShemesh explains the Talmud (Nedarim 39b) based on this idea. "When Korach confronted Moshe, the sun and the moon went before G-d and said, 'Master of the Universe, if you do justice for the son of Amram (Moshe) we will continue to shine. But if not we will cease to shine'". Maor VaShemesh asks why the sun and moon were particularly involved in this argument? He bases his answer on the Talmud (Chullin 60b) which relates that originally G-d created the sun and the moon both the same size, as the verse states "G-d made the two great luminaries" (Bereishis 1; 16). However the moon complained to G-d that two kings cannot both rule equally. Therefore G-d told the moon to make itself smaller, as the verse continues, "the big light and the small light". We see from here that G-d agreed fundamentally with the moon's claim that there can only be one ruler. Therefore, when Korach tried to claim that everyone was equal, and there was no need for a single ruler, both the sun and moon objected.

The Torah contains a story which deals with the inherent risks of having two equal leaders. Cain and Abel were originally the only two sons of Adam and Eve. The Torah states: "And Cain said to Abel his brother" (ibid. 4; 8). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 22; 7) explains that Cain's pretext for killing Abel was making a pact with him. Cain was to take the entire earth as his inheritance, and Abel was to have all the chattel. Cain would claim that the ground on which Abel was standing belonged to him, and Abel claimed that Cain's clothes belonged to him. Abel told Cain to remove his clothes, and Cain told Abel to fly in the air. Eventually Cain resolved the argument by killing his brother.

Korach hadn't learnt the lesson that it is not possible for two leaders to divide their kingdom. He continued to uphold the argument of Cain that everyone should have equal rights to govern. Therefore Moshe's challenge to Korach was the same as that of Cain and Abel. Just as they brought offerings to G-d, so too Moshe told Korach and his congregation to each bring an offering, and in that manner let G-d decide who should be the rightful leader. Moshe's prayer was "Do not turn to their gift offering", which is clearly a reminder of the earlier verse "G-d turned to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and to his offering He did not turn".

Rav Yonasan Eibeschitz in his book Tiferes Yonasan takes this idea to the point where he writes that Korach's soul was actually a reincarnation of the soul of Cain, and Moshe was a reincarnation of Abel. At this point in history the record is set straight, that ultimately righteousness, and serving G-d with a pure heart and good intentions, will triumph over might and egotistical power lust.

Korach summary

Korach assembles Datan, Aviram and On, along with 250 other men from the tribe of Reuven, and leads a rebellion against Moshe's leadership of the nation (in fact, On did not fight against Moshe, but withdrew from the fight after discussion with his wife). He claims that everyone heard G-d at Mount Sinai, and therefore everyone is equally able to lead the Israelites. Moshe, in consulatation with G-d, tells the rebels to make incense pans and to prepare incense on them, to see who's offering G-d chooses to accept. He privately summons Korach and tries to dissuade him from leading this revolt. He also summons Datan and Aviram, but they refuse to come to speak to him. G-d tells Moshe to separate the people from the tents of Korach, Datan and Aviram. G-d makes the earth open its mouth and swallow Korach, Datan and Aviram, all their families, and all that belonged to them. A flame descends from heaven and consumes the 250 men who were offering the incense.

G-d commands Moshe to tell Elazar (Aaron's son) to gather up the fire-pans. They are hammered out and made into a covering for the altar. This acts as a reminder to everyone else that only Aharon and his descendants the Cohanim may offer incense before G-d.

The entire assembly of Israel gathers the next day and complains that Moshe and Aharon are killing off the nation. Immediately a plague begins killing the people. Moshe tells Aharon to intercede by offering incense, and thus appease G-d's anger. Aharon stands between the living and the dead, offers the incense and stops the plague.

G-d then instructs Moshe to bring a new proof of Aharon's greatness. Each tribe should bring a staff inscribed with the name of the leader of that tribe. The staff of Levi should have Aharon's name on it. All the staffs are placed in the Mishkan overnight. In the morning when Moshe enters, Aharon's staff has blossomed and brought forth buds, ripening into almonds. Moshe brings out the staffs, and each leader takes his staff. The staff of Aharon was kept as a safekeeping and a reminder to prevent any future claims against Aharon.

G-d reiterates the duties of the Cohanim. They shall perform all of the sacrifices in the Temple. Any non-Kohen who performs these tasks shall die at the hands of heaven. G-d awards a portion from every sacrifice to the Cohanim. They shall also receive a tithe of the first fruits and crops. Every firstborn animal shall be given to the Cohanim. Part of it is offered on the altar and the rest of the meat belongs to the Kohen. The Cohanim will not receive a share in the Land of Israel because G-d alone is their portion.

The Levi'im receive a tithe of ten percent from all produce in return for the service that they perform in the Temple. From this tithe the Levi'im must take ten percent and give that to the Cohanim.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tosefet Bracha Shelach Lecha

l'ilui nishmat R' Avraham ben Yona Ya'akov

"Send for yourself men” (13; 2)

Rashi points out the reason that the story of the spies follows immediately after the story of Miriam (at the end of Beha'alotecha), since they both speak about lashon hara.

It is not clear to me why Rashi has to point this out. There are many sections of the Torah that we never ask about the reason for their juxtaposition, so why does Rashi need to say anything here?

Perhaps we can say that this juxtaposition requires particular explanation, based on the Talmud in Shabbat (116a) that it is not correct to put two bad topics next to each other. Here we have the tragedy of the spies immediately after the tragedy of Miriam, and this requires explanation. Therefore Rashi explains that they both deal with the same topic of lashon hara.

"Moshe called Hoshea bin Nun - Yehoshua” (13; 16)

We must point out that every time in the Torah and Nach that the word 'ben' appears it has three dots (segol) under the 'bet'. However, every time it says Yehoshua's name there is only one dot (chirik) so that it is read as 'bin'. This is strange. There must be some special reason for this unusual vocalisation.

There is only one other time that the word 'bin' is used, and that is in Mishlei (30; 1) “These are the words of Agur, son of (bin) Yakeh...” when the 'bet' also has a chirik. [There is also another time in Parshat Ki Tetzei, Devarim 15; 2, but there it doesn't mean 'son', so perhaps that is why the author doesn't mention it.] The Sages have discussed this in the midrash, and explained it aggadically (metaphorically) in Shemot Rabba Parshat Va'era section 6. However the explanation there has no relevance to the verse here. The Sages appear to say nothing at all about our case. Nor have any of the commentaries discussed it, and this is extremely strange.

Perhaps we can explain based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) and midrashim that say that the 'yud' that was taken from Sarai (after he name was changed to Sarah) complained about being removed from the Torah. It was only consoled when Moshe took it and added it to Hoshea's name to make Yehoshua (by adding a 'yud'). In this way the 'yud' that was removed from Sarai was replaced into the Torah.

This Talmud still leaves a difficulty, because even though Moshe found the 'yud' to add to Hoshea's name, where did he find the vowel to go under it? The 'yud' from Sarai had no vowel under it, whereas the 'yud' of Yehoshua has a 'sheva', which is two dots. We know that the number of dots in the Torah is precise and exact, so how could Moshe add two dots to the 'yud'? Therefore he had to remove the two dots from the 'bet' of 'ben' and replaced the 'segol' with a 'chirik'. This left two dots extra which were used for the 'yud'.

Even though this explanation is subtle and unusual, nevertheless, because of the uniqueness of the vocalisation of this word you should accept it.
[This doesn't explain why he was called Hoshea 'bin' Nun before Moshe added the 'yud' (verse 8) – perhaps the 'segol' was already removed in advance of the name change?]

"Moshe called Hoshea bin Nun - Yehoshua” (13; 16)

Rashi explains here, based on the midrash, that Moshe's intention in changing his name was to add a 'yud' to the 'heh' so that it would spell G-d's name, and as if to say 'G-d should save you from the advice of the spies' (because Moshe saw in a vision that it was posssible that the spies would sin, and he prayed that it shouldn't happen). We have to explain why Moshe prayed for Yehoshua more than for all the other spies, that he should be saved from speaking lashon hara and saying bad things about the land of Israel.

Perhaps we can explain based on the Midrash Rabba in parshat Vayeshev (end of section 86) regarding the nature of people. 'Throw a stick to the ground and it will return to where it came from'. This is an analogy to people who inherit their behaviour patterns from their parents. Like we find in the Midrash Rabba, Parshat Miketz, that when the goblet was found in the sack of Binyamin, and the brothers thought that he had stolen it, they all called him 'thief, the son of a thief'. They thought he was following in the footsteps of his mother who had stolen the idols from her father (Vayetze 31; 32). We also find this as a common saying amongst people, 'the lamb follows the ewe, the actions of the daughter are like the actions of the mother' (Ketubot 63a). Also in Yechezkel (16; 44) we find “the daughter is like the mother”.
We know that Yehoshua was from the tribe of Ephraim ben Yosef. Yosef had the attribute of speaking badly about others, like we find at the beginning of parshat Vayeshev (37; 2) “Yosef brought evil reports (about his brothers) to his father”. Therefore Moshe was concerned that this attribute might be part of Yehoshua's genetic makeup. Since he was so close to him as his student, Moshe prayed for him in particular, like for something which is likely to cause damage [which explains why he didn't also pray for Gadi ben Sussi from the tribe of Menashe, who was also descended from Yosef.]

We gave a similar explanation to something which we find many times in the Talmud. When Rav Yosef was amazed about something he would say 'Master of Avraham' (for example look in Shabbat 22a, and the other places listed there). We don't find anyone else who used this expression, nor is it explained why Rav Yosef chose this phrase to express his surprise or amazement, or why it was unique to him.
Perhaps we can explain based on what the Ran brings in Kiddushin (chapter one on the Talmud 31a) in the name of an aggada. That Rav Yosef was careful not to look outside of his immediate four amot. For this purpose he damaged his eyes [which eventually led to him becoming blind]. This trait of never looking outside the four amot was also a trait of Avraham. Like Rashi explains in parshat Lech Lecha on the verse “Now I know that you are beautiful” [that until that moment Avraham had not noticed how beautiful Sarah, his wife, was]. Also in the Midrash Rabba on Vayera (parshat 53) they said that he fulfilled the verse “close his eyes from seeing evil” (Yishiya 33; 15). Because of this trait of not looking at things away from himself, he didn't notice the actions of Yishmael. Therefore Rav Yosef had the same trait as Avraham, and therefore used this expression of surprise 'Master of Avraham'.
We also explained similarly the Talmud in Chagiga 14b, which tells of Rabbi Elazar ben Erech who expounded upon kabbalistic secrets of the nature of G-d. After he finished, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai stood up and kissed him on his head, and said, 'Blessed is G-d who gave such a son to Avraham our father'. He meant this same idea, because we know from midrashim that Avraham explored these kinds of ideas, and as explained by Rambam at the beginning of his laws of idolatry. Therefore he connected Elazar ben Erech to Avraham because he followed in his footsteps.

Shelach summary

G-d gives Moshe permission to send spies to scout the land of Canaan. Moshe sends the twelve most distinguished men, one from each tribe. One of the spies is Hoshea bin Nun, whom Moshe renames Yehoshua. The spy from the tribe of Yehuda is Calev. The spies are instructed to investigate the land, and bring back a report of the strength of its inhabitants and its fertility. When the spies return, ten of them report that the Jews will not be able to conquer the land because its inhabitants are too strong for them. Despite Calev's protestations that they should obey G-d's command to enter the land, national hysteria ensues.

The Children of Israel weep throughout the entire night, they question why G-d brought them out of Egypt, and contemplate returning to captivity there. The nation is about to stone Moshe and Aharon, along with Yehoshua and Calev, when G-d's presence appears in the Ohel Mo'ed. G-d tells Moshe that He wants to destroy the entire nation, and begin anew with Moshe's descendants. Moshe pleads on behalf of the Children of Israel, and G-d agrees to forgive the nation. However, all of the generation who left Egypt will not enter the Land of Israel. Only after they have died will G-d bring their children into Israel. Meanwhile they must spend forty years wandering in the desert. The ten spies who came back with the bad report perish immediately in a plague.

When Moshe tells this decree to the nation they begin to mourn again. They rise early the next morning and attempt to enter the Land of Israel by force, in defiance of G-d's decree, but are severely defeated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites.
G-d instructs Moshe about the libations that must accompany the animal sacrifices. He also instructs the Jews to set aside Challa, a portion from every dough to be given to the Cohanim. G-d instructs the nation about sacrifices they must bring if the entire nation unintentionally worships idols, or if an individual unintentionally commits idolatry. Someone who purposely worships idols will receive the punishment of karet (spiritual excision).

The Jews find a man gathering wood, defiantly breaking Shabbat. They bring him to Moshe, who asks G-d what his punishment should be. G-d explains that he must be put to death by stoning, which the Children of Israel then do.
G-d instructs Moshe to tell the nation to make tzitzit (tassels) on the four corners of all garments. One of the strings should be dyed with techeilet (blue dye derived from a variety of sea snail). The tzitzit will be an eternal reminder of all the commandments.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Parshat Nasso

Take a census of the sons of Gershon, as well, ..." (verse 22). Many commentators have asked about the seeming redundancy of the words "as well". Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that family of Gershon were charged with carrying the curtains and covers of the Mishkan, the external protective items. This is in contrast to their younger brothers, the family of Kehat, who were responsible for the actual utensils of the Mishkan. The Torah adds in the words "as well" to teach us that though their tasks are different from each other, and one seems more prestigious, both families and their respective functions are equally important.

The portion ends with the sacrifices of the twelve princes in the dedication service for the Mishkan. The Torah, which is normally so concise with words, repeats the details of the sacrifices for each tribe, though they are identical. Rabbeinu Bachaya (7; 84) explains that though each offering appears to us to be the same as the others, each of the leaders had totally different intentions in their gift. For example Yehuda, who was the tribe of kings, brought a silver plate, which symbolises the entire world over which Kings David and Solomon would rule. The tribe of Yissachar brought an identical plate, but to symbolise Torah, which was their domain, and which is likened to bread (Proverbs 9; 5). Zevulun, a tribe known for their seafaring trade, brought an identical plate to show their sphere of influence. And similarly for all the other tribes. We see from here that though each tribe had different abilities and skills, and though they were given individual tasks within the nation, they all brought the same sacrifice because they are all equally important.

One other main section of this portion is the laws of a Nazir. A person may decide, for various reasons, to take on a higher level of holiness in their lives. In order to do this the Torah forbids a Nazir from drinking wine, cutting his or her hair, and coming into contact with a corpse. The spiritual elevation of becoming a Nazir is incompatible with these activities. However, at the end of the duration of Nazirut (usually thirty days), the Nazir must bring a sin offering to the Temple. On the one hand, the Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 10; 28) says: "Since this person forbids himself from drinking wine and causes anguish to himself in order to keep away from sin [it is as if] G-d says, 'He is considered before me as a Cohen Gadol'". Contrasting this the Talmud (Nedarim 10a) says: "This person has only forbidden himself from wine [etc.] and is called a sinner (because he must bring a sin offering at the end of his time as a Nazir)". Though the Nazir strives for holiness, and in one aspect reaches the level of the high priest, because one's own personal task, which was to partake of the good things that G-d has put in the world, has not been fulfilled, that person is considered a sinner.

Following the laws of the Nazir, G-d commands Moshe to instruct the Cohanim with the text of the Priestly Blessing (verses 22-27). The Cohanim are to act as the conduits for G-d's blessing, both in the Temple and in the Synagogue. The ending of the blessings is 'Shalom', 'Peace', as the Sifra says, without peace any other blessings are worthless. The blessings are in the singular, showing that the path to peace is for each individual to play their role in the nation, and in so doing to bring out their own personal strengths. The ideal is not for everybody to be identical, but for everyone to fulfil their own unique potential within the nation.

The prerequisite for a person to be able to fulfil their role as part of the Jewish people is to recognise their importance as an individual. Without self-esteem a person will lack the strength and ability to play their part. This is the literal meaning of the name of the Parsha, Naso. In context it means to take a census, but it can also be translated as "elevate the head". Through defining the task of each person within the nation, a result of the census, each person gains self esteem and importance. Though their task may not be as prestigious as that of another, each individual plays an equally vital role in the well-being of the nation.

Nasso summary

Moshe is instructed to take a tally of all the family of Gershon (one of the families of Levites) between the ages of 30 and 50, who are able to work in the Mishkan. Their task in the desert is to carry all of the tapestries and hangings that cover and surround the Mishkan. The males between 30 and 50 of the family of Merari (another Levitical family) are to be counted. Their task in the desert is to carry all of the beams and pillars, along with the pegs and bases with which they fit together.
G-d instructs Moshe to send anyone who is impure out of the inner camp of the Mishkan. The Torah then lists the procedure for the Asham (guilt sacrifice) which is brought for a false oath about a deposit left for safekeeping.

The Torah lists the laws of the Sotah (suspected adulteress). She and her husband who accuses her must come to the Temple bringing a sacrifice. She is to drink specially prepared water. If she has committed adultery she will die within the year, but if she is innocent she will be rewarded by becoming pregnant within the year.

The laws of the Nazir are listed. When a man or woman chooses to become a Nazir they are prohibited to drink any grape products, cut their hair, or to come into contact with the dead. This is for the duration of their Nazirut (usually 30 days). Upon completion of their Nazirut they must shave off all their hair, and offer it on the altar along with a sacrifice.

G-d told Moshe to speak to Aaron and instruct him how to give the Priestly blessing. The Cohanim shall be a conduit through which G-d's blessings will rest upon the people.

When the Mishkan was erected the Princes of each tribe brought sacrifices, one each day for the first twelve days. They also donated the silver and gold containers in which they brought their flour and oil offerings.

From this point onwards, G-d would communicate with Moshe from between the two cherubs on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.

Bamidbar summary

The book of Bamidbar opens with a census of all the males over twenty, the age when they are able to serve in the army. The total, excluding the tribe of Levi who were not counted, was 603,550. The Levi'im are placed in charge of carrying the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and all of its fittings throughout the journeys in the desert. G-d designates each tribe's place surrounding the Mishkan in which they will remain during their time in the desert. Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun shall be to the East; Reuven, Shimon and Gad are placed in the south; Ephraim, Menashe and Binyamin to the West; and Dan, Asher and Naftali in the North.
The Torah lists Aaron's genealogy. The Levi'im are instructed to safeguard the Mishkan, and to serve the Cohanim. The tribe of Levi is given the honour of looking after the Mishkan in lieu of the firstborn who were originally intended for the position. The Levi'im are subdivided into three family groupings and a census of their numbers taken, from the age of one month upward. Their total number is 22,000. The tally of firstborn males is 22,273. The firstborn are exchanged for Levi'im, and the remaining 273 firstborn have to redeem themselves for five shekels each. This money is given to the Cohanim.
Special instructions and precautions are given to the family of Kehat who are the ones who have to carry the vessels of the Mishkan. First the Cohanim must enter the Mishkan and cover all of the furnishings with special covers; only when they have completed this may the Kahatites come to carry them. Because they are in contact with the most holy parts of the Mishkan, they are most at risk of being killed if they don't perform their task properly.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Behar Summary

G-d instructs Moshe about the Shemita (Sabbatical year) for the land. For six years we may work the land, but in the seventh we must leave it to lie fallow. Anything that grows during this year may be eaten by anyone who wants it, or is left to the animals. We must also count a cycle of seven Sabbatical years and on the 50th year proclaim a Yovel (Jubilee year). This is also a year of rest for the fields and is a time when all slaves must be set free and all land returned to its original ancestral owners. The selling price of any land must reflect the fact that it will return to the original owners in the Jubilee year. G-d promises that in the sixth year the land will provide enough crops to last for Shemita and in the 48th year, also for the Yovel that follows. No land may be sold in perpetuity.

If a person becomes impoverished and is forced to sell their hereditary land, they or their relatives should redeem it as soon as they are able. The redemption price shall be calculated based on the sale price and the remaining years until the Yovel. Houses in walled cities may only be redeemed up until one year after they have been sold. If they are not redeemed by that time they shall become the permanent property of the purchaser. Houses in Levitical cities may always be redeemed, and if they are not redeemed they revert back to the Levites in the Jubilee year.

We are commanded to help our brethren who become impoverished with interest free loans. If a Jew becomes so impoverished that he is forced to sell himself as a slave, his master must not work him unnecessarily hard. The master must also provide food and accommodation for the slave's wife and children, and must set him free in the Jubilee year. Non-Jewish slaves however become hereditary property and should not be set free.

If a Jew is sold to a non-Jew as a slave he must be redeemed as soon as possible. We are obligated in all of these laws because G-d brought us out of bondage from the land of Egypt. We are commanded not to build idols or altars to false gods.

Parshat Behar


This week’s Torah reading contains the commandment of Sh’mita, allowing the land to lie fallow in the seventh year. The Midrash (Yalkut Tehillim 103) says about this mitzvah, “Bless the L-rd, you angels of His, you mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word” (Tehillim 103; 20). Rav Yitzchak Nafcha says that this refers to those who observe the Sh’mita laws. The normal course of the world is for a person to perform a mitzvah for a day, or a week, or even a month; is it possible to keep something for a whole year? Yet these farmers watch their fields become destroyed, and their vineyards ruined, and they remain silent.

A person can refrain from something for a single day, with extra strength of character they can continue for a week or a month, but to remain observant of this law of Sh’mitafor an entire year, slowly watching years of hard work falling into ruin and seeing other people come in and treat the field as ownerless, is almost beyond the capability of a normal person. All of a person’s resolve and determination to observe this law is worn down day by day. Therefore the Midrash refers to such people as “angels, the mighty ones”.

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) learns out from the same verse in Tehillim the greatness of the Jewish nation as they received the Torah. “At the moment that the Jews said ‘We will do’ before ‘We will understand’ a voice came out of heaven saying ‘Who revealed to My children this secret that the angels use, as the verse says, “… You mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word”. First they obey, and then they understand. This ability to accept G-d’s will unquestioningly, and only afterwards to attempt to understand it, is the secret of the Jews’ strength as a nation. It is the phrase that they used at Mount Sinai, the phrase that the angels use, and it is also the only way that the nation can observe the commandment of Sh’mita. The people don’t ask how they will be able to eat in the seventh year; they first observe the commandment, and then have faith and trust that G-d will provide for them.

We see that this commandment is almost beyond human capability to perform, being in the realm of the angelic. However, in the second of today’s readings the Torah describes a severe punishment for not keeping the mitzvah of Sh’mita. “Then the land will be appeased for its Sh’mitot during all the years of its desolation, while you are the land of your enemies. Then the land will rest, and it will appease for all its Sh’mitot” (Leviticus XXVI; 34). The Talmud derives from here that exile results from Israel’s failure to observe Sh’mita. Because of the seventy Sh’mitot that they had violated prior to and during the First Temple period, the Babylonian exile lasted for seventy years, during which time the land made up for the rest of which it had been deprived.

This shows the tremendous spiritual level of which the Jewish nation is capable of achieving. G-d demands that we achieve the status of angels, otherwise we are severely punished with exile and suffering. Being a nation like all other nations is not an option for the Jews; there is no middle ground. Either we reach almost inhuman spiritual heights, and receive the blessings detailed in Bechokosai, or we fail and incur the punishments and curses listed there.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Parshat Acharei Mos 2

There is a movie called “Sliding Doors” which shows how differently things could have turned out if the doors on a tube in London had closed a few seconds later. The movie simultaneously shows what the woman’s life could have been like had she arrived home a few minutes earlier, and what happened when she arrived on time. We find a similar concept in the beginning of the Torah reading, which details the order of service in the Temple on Yom Kippur. Two identical goats are taken; they must be the same age, the same size, the same colour, and have the same value. Yet we are given a glimpse of the two totally different outcomes that can happen. One of the goats is offered as a sacrifice on the altar, and is the only sacrifice to have its blood brought into the holy area of the Heichal, the other goat is sent out into the desert, and is pushed off a cliff, being smashed to pieces before it reaches the bottom. The imagery and contrast is striking.

Similarly, two seemingly identical people can end up with such totally different fates, based on which decisions they make in life. Not only two people, but as in “Sliding Doors”, a single person can have two radically different options in life. Sometimes a single decision can change a person’s life from one extreme to the other. This is the message for all those who were in the Temple courtyard on Yom Kippur to witness the service. They could see the importance of repentance, because the stakes were so high; on the one hand entering into the holiest place and a relationship with G-d, and on the other being cast out of the Temple into a barren desert to die.

Yet the way in which this decision is made by the Kohen Gadol seems as random as in the movie, when everything hinges on when the doors on the tube close. The Kohen Gadol reaches into a box with two lots in it, and snatches out two pieces of wood, one saying “To G-d”, the other “To Azazel”. How are we to exercise our free choice, if the decision between eternal life and death hinge on the luck of the draw?

Had the Kohen Gadolbeen the one to decide which of the goats was for G-d, and which for Azazel, we would never have seen that both of these goats had the potential to become holy or the opposite. We would have said that it had already been predetermined that the one on the right would be sacrificed on the altar. However, now that the decision is made through the casting of lots, it appears to us as though G-d has made the decision. Each of the goats had the same abilities and potential. Since animals do not have free choice, they are unable to choose for themselves what their outcome will be. Because G-d chooses through the lottery, He gives us the analogy that we must exercise our free choice to maximise our potential. By seeing what happens to the two goats, we see that there are extreme consequences for our actions.

Parshat Acharei Mos

There is an inherent contradiction in the way that G-d relates to the world. We describe Him in the “Thirteen attributes” and elsewhere as a G-d of mercy and forgiveness. After the sin of the Golden Calf G-d explained to Moshe the concept and process of repentance and revoking any harsh decree. Yet at the same time we state that G-d is just and truthful, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Surely these two attributes are in conflict - if G-d is prepared to forgive and overlook punishment, how is that meting out justice or being fair. On the other hand, if G-d were not merciful, the world would stand no chance of survival. From the very creation of mankind we have gone against the Divine will and only survived instant death because of His forgiveness and acceptance of repentance.

Atonement and forgiveness are central to this week’s Torah reading, dealing primarily with the laws and service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Miraculously, through confessing our sins and by slaughtering some sacrifices, we are given a blank slate to begin again. Whatever happened to Divine justice - does each sin not need to be punished before atonement can be given?

The answer is that from our perspective, bound by the constraints of time, we cannot conceive of justice which is also forgiveness. G-d, however, is beyond any temporal constraints and perceives all of history as one instant. By introducing the dimension of time we can reconcile the apparent contradiction. Something which appears wrong in the present, can actually turn out to be the catalyst or preparation for the future. If a person resolves to repent and channel their energies back to serving G-d, then all those late nights spent watching television could turn out to be a preparation for all the late nights spent performing Mitzvoth. The mental arithmetic involved in keeping track of the football scores may be the same skills needed to fully grasp a page of Torah. Conversely, instead of punishing a sin severely at the moment it took place, that same justice can be meted out a little at a time, through several minor hardships in order to give that person another chance to make amends.

This is also shown in Judaism’s focus on process, the journey through time, rather than on results, which are momentary. The Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot are counted not as an end in and of themselves but showing us the importance of the process of spiritual growth. Each day only has meaning in relation to the days that came before it and those that follow.
All of this is encapsulated in a single word in this week’s Torah reading. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) casts lots over two identical goats. One is offered as a sacrifice to G-d, its blood sprinkled opposite the Holy of Holies, while the other symbolically bears all of the sins of the Jewish nation and is lead out into the desert where it is sent over the edge of a cliff and dies. The Torah states “Aaron shall press both his hands on the live goat’s head, and he shall confess on it all the Israelite's sins, rebellious acts and inadvertent misdeeds. When he has thus placed them on the goat’s head he shall send it to the desert with an Ish Iti.” (Vayikra 16; 20-21). Ish Iti is translated (based on Rashi’s commentary) as “a specially prepared man”, but means literally “a man of the moment”. The sending of the goat comes to remind us of the concept of forgiveness and the importance of time. It is taken away by a man who is related in the text to a single moment in time. If we were to look only at the moment, we would have no possibility of repentance or pleading for repentance. We would be as the goat, thrown of the cliff to certain death. Only because of the future are we able to turn to G-d and ask Him to give us one more chance.

This is also the metaphor of the desert. The barren desolate wilderness is not only devoid of life, but is also a place where time stands still. The Halacha discusses the case of one who is lost in the desert and loses track of which day of the week it is, thereby not knowing when to observe Shabbat. This is because time is meaningless when confronted with an unending horizon of nothingness. Similarly the fledgling Jewish nation had to spend forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt. The total journey should have only taken three days, but time had to stand still in order to rid them of their Egyptian slave mentality.

By sending the goat into this desert at the hand of a “man of the moment” we show our commitment to a real and meaningful future, and accept the importance of process over time rather than the results of an instant.

Acharei Mos Summary

After the death of Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, G-d commands Moshe about the Yom Kippur service that Aharon will have to perform. He shall take one bull as an atonement offering for himself, his wife and all the Cohanim. The Cohen Gadol (High Priest) shall cast lots over two identical goats, one of which is offered as an atonement for the entire Jewish nation, the other symbolically bearing all the sins of the nation is sent into the desert to die by falling over the edge of a cliff. The Cohen Gadol shall enter the Holy of Holies and offer incense there. After slaughtering the bull and the goat, he shall sprinkle their bloods opposite the outer curtain of the Holy of Holies. He shall also place some of the blood on the incense altar. All of these things are performed once a year, on the tenth of Tishrei.
G-d commands the Jews not to sacrifice any animals outside of the Temple or Tabernacle. They are forbidden from sacrificing to any idols or occult spiritual powers.

G-d commands the Jews not to eat the blood from an animal. Additionally, when anyone slaughters any wild animal or bird they must spill some of the blood on the ground and cover it with earth. We may not eat any animal which dies of natural causes. Furthermore, if someone does eat from it, they become ritually impure (a law which only has significance in Temple times).

The Torah lists twenty incestuous or otherwise forbidden sexual relationships and instructs us to remain holy, and not defile ourselves with any of them. Furthermore, the land of Israel itself will not tolerate any of these perversions, and will vomit out any nation which engages in them.

Parshat Metzorah

In a case of Tzora’at of a house, the owner of the house must come to the Kohen and say “It appears to me as if there is something like a plague in the house” (Vayikra 14; 35). Rashi explains that he must not state definitively that it is Tzora’at even if he is learned and can recognise the discoloration for what it is, because that is the perogative of the Kohen. Furthermore, the Torah tells the Kohen to instruct the owner of the house to empty it of all its contents before he enters to look at the discoloration. This is so that if the discoloration is Tzora’at the contents of the house will not become Tamei. This clearly indicates that the declaration of the Kohen actually renders the house Tamei, and makes the discoloration into Tzora’at. He is not simply diagnosing, but actually creating Tzora’at.

To further highlight the Kohen’s role in defining Tzora’at, the Mishna (Negaim chap. 3, mishna 2) states that there are certain people who the Kohen should refuse to see if they have a discoloration on their skin which they think may be Tzora’at. For example, the Kohenmust not inspect a bride or groom before their wedding, but wait until after the first week of marriage in order that they should not have to spend the first week of their married life dwelling apart. In other words, despite all outward appearances to the contrary, a person does not become a Metzora until the Kohen has verbally declared him to be one.

Why should G-d choose to create a Tumah (impurity) that is contingent upon another person’s declaration? Does this not make a mockery of the whole thing? Will a Metzora not always seek a “second opinion”?

Following on from last week’s d'var Torah, we can explain the reason for the disease being dependent upon the words of the Kohen. We said (based upon the Talmud and other sources) that the main cause of Tzora’at is not physical, but rather as a result of a person speaking lashon hara (slander) about others. Tzora’at is a physical symptom of a spiritual disorder. Therefore it is appropriate that part of the disease should be dependent on the words of another.

Lashon Hara is usually not spoken maliciously, but rather because people simply do not pay attention to what the are saying. They don't realise the damage they can cause, and if they are rebuked by others their response is often “It is only words”, or in the words of the children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. This is a fallacy - words and names can do tremendous damage to others. Only when a possible Metzorah is dependent upon the words that the Kohen says does he or she realise the true importance of what they say, and how far reaching and damaging their speech can be. A person can lose his or her house, or be sent into isolation outside the city limits based on a few simple words. This alone should give them pause for thought, and cause them to think carefully before they speak.

The Talmud (Arachin 16b) states :
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra, what is the meaning of the verse “What can He give you, and what can He add to you, O deceitful tongue?” (Tehillim 120; 2). G-d said to the tongue “All the limbs are upright, and you are lying horizontally. All the limbs are external, and you are internal, and not only that, but I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (teeth) and one of flesh (lips)”. What can He give you and what can He add to you, O deceitful tongue?.
Despite the fact that it is caged in, many people are still unable to control their tongue. To make matters worse, most of the time we gain no benefit from the lashon hara which we speak, and yet we persist:

Reish Lakish said what is the meaning of the verse “If the snake bites because it was not charmed, then what advantage is gained by the one who uses his tongue?” (Ecclesiastes X; 11). At some point in the future all the animals will gather together, come to the snake and say “The lion kills in order to eat, the wolf tears others apart in order to eat, but you - what benefit do you gain?” The snake will reply “Tell me - what benefit is gained by the one who uses his tongue (to speak lashon hara)?

How much damage can we cause without any gain from not paying attention to what we say? And how fortunate were the generations who were able to realise the importance of what they said by having Tzora’at as a reminder, and opportunity to make amends?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Metzorah summary

Metzora is a continuation of the previous portion, Tazriah. It begins with the purification process for a Metzora (one who is afflicted with tzora'as). Once the discoloration has healed from his or her skin, the Metzora undergoes a ritual purification which involves bringing a sacrifice and immersing in a Mikva. After seven days he or she may finally return to his house. The Torah also makes provisions for one who cannot afford the full sacrifice, and prescribes a smaller offering for them to bring.#
The Torah describes a form of tzora'at which is a discoloration on the walls of a house. Such a house must be quarantined. If after seven days the discoloration has spread, then the affected stones must be removed. If the mark returns, the house must be demolished. During this whole process the house is tamei (ritually impure), and anyone entering into it also becomes tamei.
The Torah describes a type of male genital discharge called Zav. This renders him, or anything that he sits or lies on, tamei. Any person or utensil that he touches also becomes tamei. Once the discharge has ceased, he must count seven clean days. On the eighth day he immerses in a Mikva to purify himself, and brings a purification sacrifice.

When a man has a seminal discharge, or a woman discharges semen after intercourse, he or she becomes tamei. They must immerse in a Mikva and become tahor (ritually pure) after nightfall.

When a woman menstruates she becomes tamei, and also renders anything which she sits or lies on tamei. She must wait seven days, immerse herself in a Mikva, thus becoming tahor at nightfall. If a man has intercourse with her before she has become tahor, he also becomes tamei and makes anything he sits or lies on tamei.

If a woman has a discharge when it is not time for her menstrual period, she must count seven clean days without any discharge before she can become tahor. During this time she also renders anything which she sits or lies on tamei. On the eighth day she must immerse in a Mikva to become pure, and then brings a sacrifice.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Parshat Tazria 1

Click on the link for a fantastic dvar Torah that I translated from Pri Tzadik Tazria

Here is a dvar Torah I wrote a few years ago (and in that year Tazria fell out after Pesach)

Last week's Torah reading ended with the laws of ritual purity and impurity caused by animals. This week continues with the laws about human purity and impurity. The Midrash notes that the order is the same as that of creation, where humans came after other life already existed:

"You [G-d] have created me after and before, and have laid Your hand upon me." (Tehillim 139; 4). Reish Lakish said, "After" refers to the last day of creation, "Before" refers to the first day. [where the verse hints to the human soul with the words], "The spirit of the L-rd hovered over the face of the water". If a person merits they say to them, 'You were created before everything else in existence', but if not they say to them, 'A mosquito was created before you'. Rabbi Simlai said, 'Just as humans were created after animals and birds, so too the laws [of purity] of people follow those of animals and birds'.

Reish Lakish's cryptic statement can be understood by recognising that a person is made up of two opposites, a spiritual soul and a physical body. These two are in constant conflict, each pursuing its own desires. The soul yearns for the spiritual delights of drawing close to G-d through performing mitzvot and studying Torah. The body wants physical pleasures, chasing after money, food and physical comforts. In certain areas of our lives the soul has control, in others the body. The point of intersection between the two is where we have free choice to follow either path.

Reish Lakish explains that though the physical body was not created until the end of the sixth day of creation, the soul was present from the first. Therefore if a person follows their spiritual urges seeking to draw closer to G-d, they are defined by their soul and to them it may be said, 'You were created before anything else...'. However, if a person's decisions are made by the body and its physical desires, the soul is less discernible, and therefore they are reminded that their body was created after even the insects.

The higher the spiritual potential of something, the greater is the risk of spiritual impurity. Minerals have no soul, and therefore do not impart impurity. The vegetable kingdom has a lowly form of soul, which allows growth and movement. Animals have a higher soul, which permits thought and instinct. Humans have the highest level of soul, which is described in Jewish literature as the level of speech.

The source of impurity is the body, which leads the soul away from G-d. A newborn baby is full of potential, but this is only realised over time as it is governed less by bodily urges and needs. Therefore birth, which is the completion of the physical body imparts impurity.

It is appropriate that we read this portion so soon after Pesach, the time of the birth of the nation. Similarly the counting of the Omer, of which we are in the midst, ties in with the concept of 'Before' and 'After'. The Jews in Egypt had reached the lowest level of spiritual impurity, to the point that had they remained there even a moment longer they would have lost their spirituality completely, and thus been unable to leave. Yet after counting seven weeks they had reached the level of spiritual perfection where they could experience the revelation of G-d at Mount Sinai. In a sense this self-perfection is the inverse of G-d's creation. G-d first created the soul, and then placed it within the body which draws it away from its true purpose. The Israelite nation elevated their physical bodies to the heights of spiritual perfection.

Each year we are able to relive this growth through the counting of the Omer. The Torah commands us to count from the "day after Shabbat", which refers to the first day of Pesach. Shabbat is both the beginning of the coming week, and the end of the previous week. It is the 'Seventh day' and yet within it we find the spiritual sustenance to get us through the next week. By calling Pesach 'Shabbat' the Torah is telling us that Pesach was both the starting point from which to grow to spiritual heights, and the goal for which we aimed. The Jews were involved in physical labour that gave them no opportunity for spiritual growth. Yet they witnessed G-d's hand in Egypt, the direct revelation that they were to experience again at Mount Sinai. They entire nation was as a newborn baby, full of as yet unrealised potential, redeemed by G-d in the merit of the spiritual heights that they would reach in the future.

Just as the nation experienced spiritual growth during these weeks, we can use this same time period for our own individual growth, in preparation for our personal acceptance of the Torah at Shavuot. We count each day and week to chart the incremental spiritual growth, leading to the fulfillment of our potential.

Parshat Tazria 2

The main topic of this week’s Torah reading is tzara’at, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The belief that leprosy is a biblical Divine punishment has become so widespread that I was once speaking to a group of nurses, and was asked if Judaism allows treatment of lepers, or if we must leave it as a sign of G-d’s will. A careful reading of the text clearly shows that the plague of tzara’athas no connection with leprosy.

Firstly, though the Torah does mention a case of a person who is completely covered from head to toe with tzara’at (who is actually considered tahor - ritually pure), the more common case of tzara’at is limited to a small patch of skin or hair. Furthermore, after describing tzara’at which may afflict a person, the Torah goes on to describe tzara’at of clothing, and tzara’at which affects buildings. No one has yet diagnosed a case of leprosy of a house. Finally the Torah explicitly gives permission, and in fact mandates going to a doctor and searching for a cure for an illness, in the cases of tzara’at mentioned in the Torah portion, the afflicted person must go to a Kohen for diagnoses and for treatment.

The only common feature of leprosy and tzara’at is that the Torah commands one who is afflicted with tzara’at to be exiled alone outside the town in which he or she lives. This is similar to the quarantine of lepers which existed in earlier times, and even today in some parts of the world. But the reason for the isolation in the case of tzara’at is not because of fear of the disease spreading.

As the physical world reflects the spiritual world. Tzara’at is a physical expression of a spiritual malady. This is the reason that the healing process must be through a Kohen not a doctor, and why it involves immersing in a Mikva and bringing a sacrifice.

The disease of tzara’at is not contagious, but the sin which causes it is. The main cause of tzara’at is speaking lashon hara about another person. Lashon Harais often translated as slander. In fact it is the sin of embarrassing someone else by publicising certain information about them that they would not wish for others to know, even if that information is 100% true. This is one of the most serious crimes mentioned in the Torah, comparable to the crime of murder or idol worship. It destroys society and can cause untold suffering and loss, both financial and in terms of status.

Someone who has caused this much damage to society must be made to realise the consequences of his or her actions. In biblical times a person was given gradual warnings, signs giving them a chance to improve their behaviour. First their house was afflicted with leprosy. If this did not motivate them to change their ways their clothing was affected. If they still were unable to learn their lesson they themselves contracted tzara’at. The Torah commands that someone who has this tzara’at must dwell alone outside the camp. This is a punishment which is appropriate to the crime. This person had caused a breakdown in society, therefore they were temporarily removed from society and forced to dwell alone. They were given a week to think about their actions and to repent, and if that failed they were given a second week, until they repented from their lifestyle of lashon hara.

Why do we no longer have this disease nowadays? Surely we are no better than the Jews of former times who were punished with tzara’at? The answer is that if only one or two people are speaking lashon hara, they can be effectively punished, and given a chance to think about the damage they have caused. When the whole of Western society is predicated on the concept of free speech and freedom of the press, regardless of the pain and damage that causes, it is impossible to have tzara’at as an effective punishment. Especially in the current lead up to the elections, when the future of this country is going to be decided by how effective the lashon harais! One could argue that the public have the right to know issues are important to the way someone would or could run Britain, but surely we do not need to know about every bit of sleaze that can be dredged up about anyone in the public eye?

Nowadays our lifestyles are so imbued with speaking and listening to lashon hara that we don’t even pay attention to what we are saying most of the time. How many people are careful about what they say, and how many times are we afraid of who might be listening over our shoulder? This week’s Torah reading gives us an annual reminder to be as careful about what comes out of our mouths as we are about what we put into them.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tazria Summary

After discussing the laws of tumah (ritual impurity) regarding animals, the Torah now discusses tumah concerning humans. It starts with the laws of a woman who has given birth, and moves on to the laws of leprosy.

A person who has a mark which is suspected of having tzora'at (often mistranslated as leprosy) is brought before a Cohen (priest). He determines whether it is tzora'at and declares it tamei (impure). The different possibilities of tumah and tahara (ritual purity) are explained. Various laws are given for tzora’at of an infection or a burn. Other types of tzora’at are listed, for instance bald patches on the head or beard, white patches on the body. Someone afflicted with tzora’at must leave their home and dwell outside the camp or city until the tzora’at goes.

A garment on which appears a red or green mark is also suspected of tzora’at and must be brought before the Cohen. The procedure for determining the garment’s status is explained.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Shmini Summary

This portion begins on the eighth day of preparing the Tabernacle. Aharon offers a Chatat (sin offering) and an Olah (burnt offering) and the Israelites offer a Chatat, an Olah and a Shelamim (peace offering). These are prepared by Aharon, together with a Mincha (grain offering), after which he blesses the people. Moshe and Aharon go into the Communion Tent and come out and again bless the people.

The Children of Israel are then shown G-d's glory. Fire descends from heaven and consumes all of the sacrifices on the altar. Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring an unauthorised sacrifice, and a fire descends from G-d and kills them. Aaron and his sons, Elazar and Ithamar, are instructed not to mourn because they are Cohanim (Priests). Instead, the whole congregation mourns for Aharon's sons. The Cohanim are instructed never to enter the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) intoxicated. Then they complete the inauguration service.

The portion continues with the kashrut (dietary) laws. Only animals that have split hooves and chew their cud may be eaten. Four animals are listed that only have one of these signs, the camel, the hyrax, the hare and the pig. Of the creatures that live in water, only those with fins and scales may be eaten. Birds that may not be eaten are listed; all other fowl may be eaten. Flying insects that walk on four legs may not be eaten, unless they have knees which extend above their feet that are used for hopping. Certain types of locust which fall into this category are listed.

Contact with the carcass of a non-Kosher animal renders a person tamei (ritually impure). Carrying the carcass also renders one's clothing tamei. There are eight small creeping animals (sheratzim) which make anyone who comes into contact with their carcasses tamei. The Torah gives some of the laws of tumah for utensils and foods which come into contact with a tamei object. Contact with the carcass of a kosher animal makes a person tamei. Eating from its carcass or carrying it also contaminates one's clothing. Any creature which crawls close to the ground, whether on its belly, four legs or many legs, may not be eaten.

Parshas Shmini

The opening events in the portion take place on the eighth and final day of the setting up of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), hence the name of the portion, Shemini (Eighth). The Mishkan resembled a giant tent, comprised of many parts that were fitted together, and it was designed to be assembled and taken apart for each of the journeys through the desert. As part of the inauguration process, Moshe was instructed by G-d to set up the Mishkan each morning for seven days, and dismantle it again each evening. The eighth and final day, when the Mishkan was finally erected and not dismantled, is the eighth day of our portion.

Elsewhere in the Torah however, the date given for the inaugural day of the Mishkan is the first of Nissan. The Midrash states that the first of Nissan of that year was ‘crowned’ with ten ‘firsts’. Why is this day of ‘firsts’ described to us now as the eighth day rather than the first day? And why did G-d require Moshe to spend the seven preceding days assembling and dismantling the Mishkan? Surely setting it up once should have been sufficient.

In fact, Rabbeinu Bachaya points out that the number eight was a dominant theme in the Mishkan and its utensils. The High Priest wore eight garments when performing the services, there were eight spices in the anointing oil and incense, and there were a total of eight carrying poles (two each in the Aron, the golden altar, the table and the earthen altar). The minimum age for an animal that could be sacrificed was eight days, and the Levites had eight different musical instruments to accompany the sacrifices.

What does the number eight represent? In the song that we sing at the conclusion of the Pesach Seder we state that eight are the days before the Brit (circumcision). This means that the deeper meaning of eight is contained within the concept of circumcision.

The commandment of circumcision was given by G-d to Avraham at the time that his name was changed from Avram (Genesis 17). The change of name signified that only now had he reached his full spiritual potential. It was also at this time that G-d told Avraham that he would have a son, Yitzchak, who would continue in his traditions of monotheism. Thus with the act of circumcision Avraham became spiritually complete. Before Avraham was circumcised he was unable to stand in the presence of G-d (Rashi ibid. 17; 3).

There is a blessing which women recite every morning, which men are unable to say. They thank G-d “She’Asani Kirtzono” who has created me according to His will. Men are formed spiritually imperfect, and only through circumcision do they conform to the Divine will.

The number seven always represents the natural, physical world. There were seven days of creation, and seven days in a week. There are seven colours in the spectrum, and seven notes in an octave. Seven symbolises the totality of the physical. There are also seven continents and seven heavens. Eight is the number of spiritual perfection. It denotes mastery not only over the physical realms, but also over the spiritual domain.

It is now clear why G-d commanded Moshe to set up the Mishkan for seven days, and only consecrate it on the eighth day. This was to show the world that its function was to complete the universe spiritually, and perfect the material world.

Parshas Tzav 2

The second verse of our Torah portion states: “Command Aharon and his sons … It is the elevation offering that stays on the flame, on the altar....” In the Torah scroll the Hebrew word for flame, Mokda is written with a small letter mem in the beginning. Why is this letter smaller than the others? The first task of the day in the Temple was to remove a shovelful of ashes from the altar and place them at the side of the ramp at the base of the altar (verse 3). Miraculously these ashes would be absorbed into the ground. This was not in order to keep the altar clean, or to prevent a build up of ashes, because the next verse states a separate command to remove the excess ashes outside the confines of the Temple, and to place them in an ash heap there. What purpose is served in symbolically removing the ashes each morning, and why was it necessary for a daily miracle to absorb them into the ground? Furthermore, why is Aharon mentioned at the beginning of this portion (“Speak to Aharon and his sons...”)? Surely such a menial task as cleaning out the altar from its ashes would
be better given to a younger Cohen, and should not be the domain of the High Priest.

One of the main Yeshivot in pre-war Europe was in Kelm. It was famed not only for the level of scholarship and Torah study, but also for its character training, and emphasis on mussar. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, founder of Gateshead Yeshiva, studied there as a young boy. He writes that in the Yeshiva, menial tasks such as cleaning the floor or cleaning and lighting the lamps were never entrusted to servants; they were considered privileges, to be apportioned amongst the better students according to merit. Rabbi Dessler related that when he first came to Kelm he was considered too young to be given the much coveted task of sweeping the Yeshiva floor. His task was to go once a week to the post office to buy postage stamps for the whole Yeshiva. This philosophy that the menial tasks should be given to the betterstudents derives from our portion, that Aharon should be the one to clean out the burnt ashes from the altar.

Traditionally the world is composed of four elements, water, wind, fire and earth. The Vilna Gaon (Even Shleima 1;1) explains that these four also represent the four main character defects in a person. Water represents physical desires, wind is speech, fire is anger and pride, and earth is laziness. Just as fire always strives upwards, so too pride will cause a person to continually strive to elevate themselves, until they finally topple over. Fire also consumes every flammable thing in its path. Similarly a conceited person will tread on anyone beneath them in order to climb higher on the ladder. However, the gains made in such a fashion are illusory. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states, “Anyone who chases after greatness, greatness flees from him.”

Unfortunately, the greater a person is, the greater the temptation to become proud, and conceited. With the other three defects, a person can improve themselves by striving for perfection. However with pride, this is the cause of the sin, not the solution. Therefore a person in an important position needs to take drastic measures to prevent themselves falling into the trap of pride. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b) relates that when Rav would se a crowd escorting him to the court where he judged, he would recite the following verse to himself “Though his excellency shall mount up to the heavens, and his head reach the clouds, yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung” (Iyov 20; 6-7).

This is the reason that the Torah prefers that the cleaning of the altar be done by the High Priest. Because of his exalted position it is only too easy for him to succumb to the dangers of pride. Therefore the first action that he should perform each morning is to remove the ashes from the altar. To do so he must remove his fine garments, and change into plain clothes, so that his finery not become soiled. If all the other Cohanim see that the High Priest acts thus, they too will remember their place, and not become haughty. This is the symbolism inherent in the ashes sinking into the ground; the priests need this miraculous reminder that even the sacrifices on the altar eventually sink into the ground, and that they should not consider themselves important. This is also the reason for the small mem in the Torah. When it comes to fire, the metaphorical image of pride, one must make oneself small in order to escape its dangers.

Parshas Tzav

Though they both speak about korbanot, sacrifices, there is a sharp distinction between last week’s Torah reading, Vayikra, and this week’s Tzav. Rashi explains that the word Vayikra is a term of endearment, as evidenced by the fact that the angels use it when they begin their praises of G-d, as it says “Vayikra Ze El Ze”, “They called one to another” (Yishayah 6: 3. We also recite the phrase daily in the Kedushaprayer, imitating the angels’ praise of G-d). On the other hand, “Tzav” means “command”, and carries with it connotations of inducing and encouraging someone to perform an action that they are not keen to do.

The portion of Vayikra contains instructions to the Jewish people as to how to bring the sacrifices. The Hebrew word “Korban” is closely related to the word “Kiruv”, “closeness”. This is because the purpose of any sacrifice is to draw close to G-d. The two main types of sacrifice are those which are brought to attain atonement for an inadvertent sin, and a voluntary offering thanking and recognising the good that G-d has performed for us. Both of these bring us closer to G-d. Atonement breaks down the barriers of sin with which we have surrounded ourselves, strengthening our relationship with our Creator. Voluntary offerings are our way of showing our total dependence upon G-d, and that He is the source of all our success and prosperity.

Rav Dessler explains that the way to foster love towards someone is to give to them. The classic proof of this is our children. When they are born they are total takers, incapable of returning even a smile by way of thanks. But this enables the parents to give totally to their children, and thus foster a close bond of love. Stories of children separated from their parents show that the relationship is weakened if the parents have not had the opportunity to give and to look after their children. Similarly, G-d in His mercy commanded us to bring sacrifices to Him. Though by definition He lacks nothing, through the sacrifices He gave us an opportunity to ‘give’ to Him as a means of fostering love and closeness.
Therefore G-d calls to Moshe, and instructs him to tell the people about sacrifices using a term of endearment. The concept and purpose of sacrifices can only be achieved through a desire to draw close and express affection.

The portion of Tzav however contains primarily instructions for the Cohanim as to how they should perform the sacrifices. They do not gain personally from offering the sacrifices. In fact they lose their own identity. The Talmud explains that Cohanim perform a dual function, they are emissaries of G-d when they bless the people, and they are messengers of the people when they offer the sacrifices. They are merely performing actions on behalf of others, but do not benefit personally from the sacrifices which they offer.

Therefore G-d instructs Moshe to “command” them about the sacrifices. Rashi adds, “Rabbi Shimon says, the Torah especially needs words of encouragement where there is a monetary loss involved”. At first glance this seems backwards; the Cohanim are not losing out financially by offering the sacrifices. It would have seemed more appropriate to place this command at the beginning of Vayikra before commanding the people to spend their money buying animals for sacrifices. But having looked deeper, we can see that any amount of money is worth paying in order to bring a sacrifice. Who can put a price on drawing close to G-d, and who would not willingly pay whatever that costs. On the other hand, the Cohanim are merely acting on behalf of another. They do not gain anything personally from their hard work, but spend all day working for others. It does not cost them directly, but they are not gaining from their time spent working. It must be tempting for them to give up their role as priests and go out to get a paying job like everyone else. Therefore G-d needs to give them an extra push of encouragement by using the word “Tzav” to get them to perform their tasks.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tzav Summary

G-d instructs the Cohanim (priests), through Moshe, the laws concerning the sacrifices. They are commanded to remove the ashes each morning from those sacrifices that were left burning over night. They are also instructed to ensure that a fire is continually burning on the altar. They are told how to offer the flour offerings that are brought by the nation. They are also told what sacrifice a Cohen is to bring on the day he is appointed as Priest. That same flour offering is brought daily by the High Priest.

Explicit instructions are given for the procedures for sacrificing the sin offerings (Chataot), the guilt offerings (Ashamim) and the peace offerings (Shelamim)
The people of Israel are commanded not to eat the cheilev (certain pieces of fat) or blood from any animal. The Torah commands that certain pieces of the meat from the Shelamim are given to the Cohanim to eat.

The portion ends with the anointing of Aaron and his sons as Cohanim. Moshe acts as High Priest during their initiation ceremony. He must dress the Cohanim, anoint them, and offer sacrifices on their behalf. The Cohanim are instructed to stay in the Ohel Moed (Communion Tent) for seven days to complete their inauguration.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Parshas Vayikra 2

This week we begin a new book of the Chumash, Vayikra. The book is predominantly about the sacrificial rites of the Temple and Tabernacle so the English name seems more appropriate than the Hebrew. Leviticus indicates that the book deals with the work of the Levites (priests). How is the Hebrew name of Vayikra apt for this section?

The book begins, “He called (Vayikra) to Moshe, and G-d spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying...”. Rashi’s opening comment on this portion is: Each time G-d spoke to Moshe, told him something, or commanded him, He first called to him. This is a word denoting love and closeness, as we find with the ministering angels, “They call one to another...” (Yishaya 6; 3). However, when G-d speaks to non-Jewish prophets He appears to them ‘incidentally’, as the Torah states, “The L-rd happened (Vayikar) upon Bilam”.

Since G-d called first to Moshe before every prophecy, why did Rashi not make this comment until now? And what difference does it make if G-d calls first before speaking to a prophet, or just appears to them? We would have expected the message of the prophecy to be important, but not necessarily whether G-d first gives the prophet a warning or not. Ohr Gedaliyahu (Vayikra) explains that when G-d called to Moshe it was as if He was saying ‘Prepare yourself to come near to Me’. This is what Rashi means by calling Vayikra a term of closeness, that it gave Moshe an opportunity to prepare himself and draw near to G-d. The Midrash (Rabba, Devarim Ki Tavo 7-9) finds a hint to this from the way G-d gave the Torah to Moshe. The verse states “G-d called to Moshe to the top of the mountain - and Moshe elevated himself” (Exodus 19; 20). In a similar vein, when a man comes up to read from the Torah, he must first be ‘called up’.

We see therefore that through calling G-d gives a person an opportunity to prepare themselves to come close to G-d. In this way the Torah that they will receive will not be merely tangential to them, but they will be able to absorb it, to make it part of themselves. This is the opposite of what happened with Bilam. G-d came to him ‘incidentally’, without calling to him first. Though Bilam received a message through prophecy, we see that this fact had no effect on Bilam’s personal conduct. He still remained greedy, cunning, and steadfast in his hatred of the Jews.

The main topic of Vayikra is sacrifices. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is Korban, which comes from the root Karov, meaning closeness. Though the whole concept of sacrifices, and the mechanism through which it works seems very strange and foreign to us now, we can accept the principle that bringing an animal to the Temple is a symbol of giving something to G-d. Particularly nowadays, that prayer has replaced sacrifices, we understand that this gives us a chance to give of ourselves to G-d, and through this draw close to Him.

We believe that G-d lacks nothing, and since He created us we would not have expected that there is anything that we could possibly give to him. However, Rabbi Dessler (Michtav Me’Eliyahu - Kuntrus HaChessed) writes that the only way to truly come to love someone is through giving to them (which is perhaps the opposite of the way we normally view things). If we were not given any opportunity to give to G-d we would also not be able to come to love Him. Therefore in His kindness He commanded us to bring certain sacrifices, and nowadays prayers in their place, to offer to Him. In this way we can elevate ourselves, and come to love G-d. With this understanding we see that the commands about the sacrifices are analogous to G-d’s calling before revealing Himself to a prophet. It gives the opportunity to turn G-d’s unilateral love into a relationship, and enables humans to attach themselves to G-d.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Parshas Vayikra 1

The English (Greek) name for this book of the Bible is Leviticus, which is appropriate because the book is predominantly about the Temple services, and the role of the Levites. In Hebrew, however, the name of both the book, and this first Torah reading is Vayikra, meaning “He called”. This name is taken from the first word, but how is it appropriate to the content of Leviticus?

Rashi’s first comment on this book is: “Each time that G-d spoke to or commanded Moshe, He preceded it by calling to him, which is a form of affection ....”. This is contrasted to the way in which G-d appeared to Bilam, the non-Jewish prophet, with the phrase “Vayikar” (Numbers 23; 4), which means “happened upon”. G-d did not want to enter into the same relationship with Bilam that he had with Moshe, and with later Jewish prophets. Why does the Torah single out this time to tell us that G-d called to Moshe?

Calling someone or something by their name expresses its inner essence. For example, Adam called names to the animals (Genesis 2; 19-20). G-d gave Adam this task because he was able to perceive the true qualities that define each creature. Similarly we find G-d calling names to objects during the days of creation, “G-d called the light day, and the darkness He called night ...” (ibid. 1; 5). If these names were merely a convention to enable reference to objects there would be no need for the Torah to mention that these names are part of the structure of creation. Rather the naming of an object denotes its role in creation. It is for this reason that Rashi explains G-d’s calling to Moshe as a sign of affection. He is defining Moshe’s role as one who can speak to G-d.

How is the book of Leviticus the most appropriate definition of who Moshe and the Jewish nation are? Why does the Torah give us this sign of affection at this point? Rambam writes (Hilchot Me’ila 8; 8), “Mishpatim (laws) are those commandments for which the reason is obvious, and the benefit of observing them is well known, for example the prohibitions on stealing and murder, and honouring parents. Chukim (statutes) are those commandments for which the reason is not known … for example the prohibitions of eating pig, or meat and milk, … and the red heifer. … All the sacrifices are in the category of Chukim.”

Why should we be obligated to keep commandments which make no sense to us? Surely Judaism is a rational religion, yet we are commanded to abide by statutes which are impossible for us to fathom. How can we justify such blind faith? This can be answered with an analogy. There are many things in science which we cannot prove empirically, for example, until very recently certain quarks (sub atomic particles) could not be detected. Even without direct proof, scientists believed that they existed, and were able to describe their properties. This is not blind faith, physicists were convinced of their existence because they were necessary to explain other properties of the universe which had been observed.

So too with the Chukim. Having experienced G-d directly at Mount Sinai the Jews knew that the Torah was Divine, and that it contained the blueprint of the universe. Furthermore, after the Exodus from Egypt it was clear that G-d was working in the Jews’ best interests. Therefore it follows that the laws which He gave are also in our best interests, and even without knowing how or why they work we can accept them as binding. In addition many of the commandments are understandable within a social context, and none of them go against our logic (though many are beyond the grasp of our understanding). So the Chukim demonstrate our conviction of belief even more than those laws which we can understand.

This is why this time G-d began with the word Vayikra. Though He called to Moshe before every encounter, G-d wanted to stress the affection inherent in the sacrifices, as the largest body of Chukim. Observance of these statutes shows our total devotion to G-d, even with regard to laws that we would not have come to make based solely on our logic. Similarly by commanding us with these Chukim G-d shows His affection for us, giving us the keys to the universe that are not accessible to humans through logic alone.

By opening the book with the word Vayikra, G-d also shows that this is the true essence of the Jewish nation. He defines our role in the world as a people who follow G-d’s commands devotedly, even when we are unable to understand them. This explains the reason that the whole book which details the Levitical rites and the sacrifices is known by this name which describes the mutual affection between the Jews and G-d.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Vayikra Summary

The book of Vayikra (literally ‘He called’, known as Leviticus in English), is primarily concerned with the Cohanim (Priests) and the Mishkan (Tabernacle). In this week's portion, G-d instructs Moshe to tell the people about korbanot (sacrifices). The different types of korbanot are listed and explained. The first group of korbanot mentioned are the olot (singular olah), or burnt offerings. The type of korban that one brings depends on one's wealth, either an animal, a dove, or a meal offering.

After being slaughtered and prepared, each of these is completely burnt on the altar.
Another type of korban is that of the first grain, bikurim. This is to be brought as soon as the grains have ripened on the stalk. A shlamim (peace offering) is a voluntary sacrifice of either a cow, a sheep or a goat. After it has been slaughtered, parts of it are burnt on the altar, and the meat is eaten by the person who brought it. The next group of korbanot are the chatot (sin offering, singular chatat) which were brought after inadvertently committing certain sins. The Torah lists different types of chatat which would be brought by the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), the entire community, a Prince of a tribe, or a regular person.

Another korban is the guilt offering, asham,which includes the korban oleh v’yored (varying sacrifice). It is brought if a person who has witnessed an event refuses to testify. It is also brought if a person makes a verbal oath and forgets about it, or if someone becomes tamei (impure) and enters the Temple. A fixed asham is brought if a person accidentally derives benefit from something dedicated to the Temple. It is also brought when someone is unsure whether they transgressed certain prohibitions for which they should bring a chatat, or if he takes a false oath, denying possession of a deposit or a found object.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pekudei 2

Each Torah portion takes its name from its first or second sentence. Yet the name also represents the theme or essence of that reading. Pikudei, the name of this week’s Parsha,is translated in this context as reckonings, or accountings, but we find elsewhere in the Torah that the verb Poked also has several other meanings. When Sarah conceives Yitzchak (Isaac) the Torah says “V’Hashem Pakad Es Sarah Ka’asher Amar”, “G-d remembered Sarah as He had said [that He would]” (Genesis 21; 1). The Torah uses the word when Yosef is appointed, first as head of Potiphar’s household, later as head of the jail, and finally when he appoints others to oversee the storing of grain before the famine (ibid. 39; 4. 40; 4. 41; 34). After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d says “Uv’yom Pokdi Ufakadti Aleihem Chatasam”, “On the day when I grant special providence to the people, I will take this sin of theirs into account” (Exodus 32; 34). Most importantly, the code phrase that Yosef (Joseph) gives to the Jews before his death, the promise that G-d will redeem them from Egypt, is “Pakod Yifkod Elokim Eschem”, “G-d will surely remember you” (Genesis 50; 24). This is the same phrase that G-d tells Moshe to use when he returns from Midian to redeem the Jews, “Pakod Pokadti Eschem” (Exodus 3; 16). Finally, a Pikadon means a deposit for safekeeping (Leviticus 5; 21). How are all of these meanings connected, and what is their relevance to today’s Torah reading?

The common denominator in most of these quotations is that they involve a special providence; G-d changes the normal order of things in order to influence the future history of the Jewish nation. Under normal circumstances a ninety year old post-menopausal woman does not conceive. Yet miraculously G-d intervenes and causes Sarah to conceive, in order that she should have a descendant to continue the work that she and Avraham had begun. Though Yosef is the son of Ya’akov, thus a prince in his own right, the Egyptians think that he is a slave. Therefore his rise to prominence is truly remarkable; G-d is making provisions for the exile in Egypt in order to create a unified nation out of the small family of Ya’akov. When the Jews built the Golden Calf, they deserved to be annihilated for their sin. . Because of Moshe’s prayers, and those of the whole nation, G-d created history and punished them a little at a time. In this way they achieved a complete atonement, without being destroyed. Each calamity that befalls the Jewish nation throughout time contsind within it a part of the original Pekida of the Golden Calf, and therefore clearly shows His intervention in the normal course of history.

Of course, the time when the world most clearly beholds G-d’s changing of the natural order for the sake of the Jews, is the Exodus. All of the plagues, the splitting of the Reed Sea, and the other miracles that we relate each year in the Hagadda, are an eternal reminder of G-d’s love for us, and His willingness to override nature for our benefit. Before his death, Yosef promises the Jews that the hardship of the slavery in Egypt is also part of the Divine plan. Who knows better than Yosef that even the most difficult injustices are also a sign of G-d’s love for us, and His intervention in history. Pakod Yifkod becomes the phrase which enables the Jews to endure the severest pain of their suffering. They know that it is an open sign of G-d’s concern for them, despite appearances to the contrary.

The reason for Pekida is because the Jews are a Pikadon entrusted to G-d’s safekeeping. In the Covenant Between the Pieces G-d promised Avraham “Look at the sky and count the stars. See if you can count them. That is how your descendants will be... To your descendants I have given this land...”. At that time, G-d promised to ensure the future of Avraham’s descendants and to involve Himself directly in history to fulfil this promise. All of the future generations are a surety to Avraham that G-d will keep this promise.

The completion of the Mishkan in Pikudei is the final step in the spiritual redemption from Egypt. It indicates a return to the level of our forefathers, in that G-d gives a constant indication of His dwelling in our midst. This is the pinnacle of the Pekida that was promised to Avraham and conveyed through Yosef. Ultimately, the setting up of the Mishkan was a necessary consequence of the slavery in Egypt. Thus it was appointed from the time of the covenant with Avraham. In fact the mystics say that the building of the Mishkan was appointed from the very beginning of creation. It was erected “Bayom HaSh’mini”, “On the eighth day”, the natural culmination of the seven days of creation.

Thus the accounting of the materials of the Mishkan also shows G-d’s involvement with the world, and the special providence which He grants the Jewish people. The reason the Jews deserve this special providence is because they are a surety for the promises made to Avraham. Together with the fact that the Mishkan was constructed at a time appointed from the time of creation, this is a fitting ending for the book of Exodus, retrospectively showing how all the pieces of history fit together.

1Often mistranslated as “The Red Sea”
2The first Rebbe of the Gerrer Chasidim, early 1800s
3Singer Siddur p. 725/378
4An anonymous text attributed to Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona first published in 1523. In it the author lists the 613 Commandments in the order of the Torah readings, and gives reasons and explanations for them.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Pekudei 1

The Ba’al HaTurim (commentary on Exodus 40; 33) points out the seemingly redundant repetition of the phrase, “As G-d commanded Moshe” after each item for the Mishkan was constructed. He explains that as a reward for Moshe’s pleading for the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf, when he said, “Please erase me from your book”, G-d constantly repeats Moshe’s name in this portion.

The Ba’al HaTurim notes further that the phrase “As G-d commanded Moshe” appears eighteen times in this portion, corresponding to the eighteen blessings of the weekday Amida. The phrase, “As G-d commanded, so they did” appears once, and corresponds to the additional nineteenth blessing against heretics. How are these three ideas - Moshe’s pleading, the Amida, and the construction of the Mishkan - related?

The Talmud (Berachot 28b) asks what the eighteen blessings of the Amida correspond to. Several answers are given: Rabbi Hillel son of Rabbi Shmuel says they correspond to the eighteen times G-d’s name is mentioned in Havu LaShem B’nei Eilim (Psalm 29), Rav Yosef says that they are in place of the eighteen times G-d’s name is mentioned in the Shema and Rav Tanchum says in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that they correspond to the eighteen vertebrae in the spine.

It seems understandable to relate the blessings of the Amida to mentions of G-d’s name, since the purpose of prayer is to create a connection with G-d. However, what is the connection between the Amida and the spine? The Talmud hints at the answer to this with another statement of Rav Tanchum in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, that one should bow during the Amida to the extent that the vertebrae stick out. For Rav Tanchum it seems that the essence of the Amida is subjugation to G-d’s will, evidenced through bowing. Elsewhere (Bava Kamma 16a) the Talmud states that a person’s spine transforms into a snake after seven years if they do not bow during Modim. We understand the metaphor of the Talmud, if a person refuses to show humility before G-d, and does not bow in thanksgiving, they come to resemble the snake of the Garden of Eden, who also rebelled against its creator.

This self-nullification in the presence of G-d is what Moshe did on Mount Sinai. After the sin of the Calf, Moshe was prepared to sacrifice himself in order to save the nation. The Rashbam (commentary on ibid. 32; 32) explains that “Erase me from Your book” refers to the book of life. Moshe was prepared to give up his role in this world and the next in order to save the nation. This is the ultimate in subjugation and humility. Moshe felt that he did not deserve any merit in his own right, but that his only value was as the leader of the people. Therefore if they were to be wiped out, he would forfeit his share of both worlds.

The construction of the Mishkan involved months of skilled and difficult work. Though everyone brought donations for the Mishkan, only a few people had the requisite skills to fashion the materials according to the Divine blueprints. Eventually, when Moshe assembled everything and the nation saw the beauty of the structure, with its gold, silver and precious gems, along with colourful woven tapestries, it would have been natural for those involved in the construction to take a certain satisfaction and pride in their work. However, this would have negated everything that the Mishkan represented. How can a human being using their body, which is a gift from G-d, to fashion the materials which were created by G-d, according to a plan given by G-d, take any personal pride in their accomplishments? This is similar to the statement of Pirkei Avos (2; 9), “If you have learnt much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, since you were created for this very purpose”.

Therefore the Torah repeats the phrase, “As G-d commanded Moshe” eighteen times, to show that the Mishkan was constructed with the same selflessness which Moshe embodied. The only purpose was to fulfill the will of G-d. Similarly, in prayer, we should strive for this commitment to serving G-d. We do not make requests of G-d for our own pleasure, but so that we will be better able to perform the will of our Creator.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Pekudei Summary

Pikudei begins with the accountings (pikudim) of the materials for the Tabernacle. It lists which materials, and how much of them, were used. It also explains how the priestly garments are made: the ephod, the breastplate, the robe, the headplate, the tunics, the turban, the breeches, the hats and the belt.

The Tabernacle is completed and brought to Moshe. He sees that all the work has been done as G-d commanded, and blesses the workers. G-d gives Moshe instructions how to erect the Tabernacle. On the first of Nissan, in the second year after leaving Egypt, the Tabernacle is erected by Moshe.

After Moshe has placed all the items in the Tabernacle as commanded by G-d, the Cloud of Glory comes to rest upon it. When the Jews are encamped, the cloud remains there by day, and becomes a pillar of fire by night. When the cloud rises from the Tabernacle, it is a sign for the Children of Israel to continue their travels.