Monday, February 25, 2008

Vayakhel 2


Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda did all that G-d commanded Moshe” (28; 22). Rashi quotes the Talmud (Brachot 55a): The Torah does not say “That which Betzalel was commanded”, but rather “All that Hashem had commanded Moshe”. This implies that even with regard to matters which Moshe did not tell him, Betzalel’s mind was in accord with that which had been said to Moshe at Sinai. For Moshe commanded Betzalel to make the furnishings first, and afterwards the Mishkan. Betzalel said to him, “The common practice is to first make a house, and afterwards to put furnishings in it”. Moshe said to him, “Thus as you said I heard from the mouth of G-d, perhaps you were in G-d’s shadow (a play on the name Betzalel, B’tzel - El, in the shadow of G-d), for indeed that is what G-d commanded me [first the Mishkan and then the furnishings].

This raises several questions. Firstly, how could Moshe have misunderstood what G-d told him regarding the construction of the Mishkan? Was he not referred to by G-d as his “trustworthy servant” (Shabbat Mincha)? Secondly, how could Betzalel dare to question Moshe about what he heard at Mount Sinai. If Moshe said to first make the furnishings why was Betzalel so brazen as to question him? Finally, it seems so obvious that one should build a house before making the fittings and furnishings for it. Why does Moshe praise Betzalel so highly for his understanding, which seems so basic that anyone should have spotted it?

Elsewhere (Exodus 35; 30) Rashi tells us that Chur, Betzalel’s father, was the son of Miriam, Moshe’s sister. Normally the Torah only describes a person by their name and the name of their father. Perhaps the Torah is telling us here that Betzalel was following in the footsteps not only of his father, but also of his grandfather and his great grandmother, that in some way he had the same qualities that Miriam possessed.

Miriam was always the realist. It was she who persuaded her father to remarry his wife despite Pharaoh’s decree that all male children be thrown into the Nile. Miriam was able to see that Amram’s decree was harsher than that of Pharaoh, in that it would have ensured that there were no Jewish children at all, whereas Pharaoh only decreed on the males. She watched over Moshe as he was placed in the Nile to see what would become of him, and she arranged for her mother to be Moshe’s wet nurse. Miriam passed on this ‘sensible’ approach to life to her great grandson Betzalel, so that he was the one chosen by G-d to oversee the construction of the Mishkan.

Moshe was the spiritual leader of the people, and as such was continually treading a fine line between total spirituality and communication with G-d, and being the spokesperson for the nation. To Moshe there was no such thing as independent reality, only G-d’s will which was to be obeyed, and taught to the Jewish people.

The Mishkan was no ordinary building. Each part of it was imbued with spiritual qualities and metaphysical meaning. Moshe saw that the Mishkan was beyond human logic and understanding, and therefore anything that G-d told him he conveyed to the builders without question. Betzalel, however, understood that though the Mishkan was to be the dwelling place of the Divine, nevertheless it was physical and as such could not contradict human logic.

Just as Descartes could only believe in his own existence because of his belief in a good G-d who would not give people logic that had no relationship to reality, so too Betzalel knew that though the Mishkan could be beyond human comprehension it could not by illogical. For G-d to dwell within the constraints of the finite world He must limit Himself to abiding by the laws of this world.
Furthermore, the primary value of the Mishkan was that it provided a paradigm for human interaction with G-d. If the Mishkan had been built contrary to the reality of the world, we would have had no way of bringing G-d into the world, except within the very defined bounds of the Mishkan. Betzalel understood that for the Mishkan to have meaning it must conform to normal human behaviour.

Now we can answer the three questions with which we began. When G-d commanded Moshe about the Mishkan, He left the order in which the items were to be built open to two interpretations, in order that we should realise that the Torah does not contradict our logic, and that people are able to interpret the Torah based on the more logical option. It was this point that Betzalel was questioning, not what Moshe actually heard on Mount Sinai.

Betzalel claimed that G-d would not command us to build a Mishkan which went against our logic. He was telling Moshe that the main function of the Mishkan was to facilitate interaction between people and G-d, and as such it had to be comprehensible. Moshe immediately acknowledged that this was G-d’s purpose, and conceded that he had misinterpreted G-d’s instruction. This does not imply that Moshe misunderstood anything else that he learnt on Mount Sinai, but rather that G-d gave him the opportunity to learn from Betzalel the importance of remaining in touch with the normal way of the world.

Vayakhel 1

Vayakhel is a Parsha dealing with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). It begins, however, with three verses about observing Shabbat. The Rabbis learn from this juxtaposition that the activities which are prohibited on the Sabbath are those activities that were necessary to construct the Mishkan. They also learn from this that keeping Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Mishkan. Despite the importance of the work, the Jews in the desert were not permitted to desecrate Shabbat in order to complete it quicker.

What is the connection between Shabbat and the Mishkan that enables us to learn that only the activities used in its construction are prohibited? Perhaps there are other, or different, actions that we should not perform on Shabbat. Also, why does the Torah need to tell us that we may not build the Mishkan on Shabbat? Isn’t it obvious that we cannot desecrate Shabbat for any Mitzvah, regardless of its importance. What is it about the Mishkan that may have led us to believe that its construction takes precedence?

There are many parallels between the construction of the Mishkan and the creation of the universe. The Talmud (Megilla 10b) states that on the day when the Mishkan was erected, G-d showed the same happiness as the day on which the world was created. The world is a “dwelling place” for G-d, where His presence can be perceived by His creations. Likewise, the Mishkan was the focal point for G-d’s presence on earth. G-d is called Shaddai because when the world was being created it was unrolling like thread from a loom until G-d said “Dai”, enough (Talmud Chagiga). Similarly, the people brought so many donations for the Mishkan, that the workmen were forced to say “enough” (Exodus 36; 7). On a Kabbalistic level, the world was created with the three highest sefirot (spheres), chachma, bina and da’as, i.e.,wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Similarly, the Mishkan’s prime architect was Betzalel, who is described (ibid. 35; 31) as “filled with wisdom, understanding and knowledge” (which explains the meaning of his name Betzalel, in the shadow of G-d).

The Mishkan is a symbolic map of the spiritual reality of creation. It is also the ultimate fulfilment of the purpose of creation (v. Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on the book of Exodus). Therefore those activities needed for its construction are a representation of the same activities that G-d used in creating the universe. Obviously G-d doesn’t do “work” in any physical sense, in fact the creation of the world was through G-d’s “utterances” rather than through actions (v. Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 5); but the Hebrew word for “word”, davar is the same as the word for “thing”. At some level the essence of everything is G-d’s word made physical. So if we could understand the deepest meaning of words, we could understand the nature of things, and similarly if we look at the physical activities involved in creating something, we can understand its name and essence.

Shabbat is described as a testimony that G-d created the world in six days, and that on the seventh day He rested from all His Melacha (creative activity). The Melacha that G-d did in creating the world is exactly the same Melacha that was used to build the Mishkan. It is not coincidental that the prohibited activities on Shabbat are the same as those involved in building the Mishkan, because both are the activities of the creation of the world. We acknowledge G-d’s creation of the world, and His mastery over it, by abstaining from those creative activities that G-d rested from when He created the world, which are revealed to us through the building of the Mishkan.

This also explains why the Torah needs a specific instruction not to build the Mishkan on Shabbat. Since both are an acknowledgement of G-d’s creation of the world, one may have made the erroneous assumption that building the Mishkan could serve as a substitute for observing Shabbat. Therefore the Torah needs to tell us that this is not so. Shabbat is an eternal reminder, and cannot be replaced, even by another form of acknowledging G-d’s sovereignty.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Parshat Ki Tissa 3

The Soul of the Torah

The difference between the two sets of tablets that Moshe brings down from Mt. Sinai represent the two completely different spiritual levels that the Jews are on at the time they receive them. The first tablets are described (Shemot 32;15) “They were tablets written on both sides, with the writing visible from either side. The tablets were made by G-d and written with G-d’s script engraved on the tablets”. In contrast, the second tablets are made by Moshe. “Carve out two tablets for yourself, just like the first ones. I will write in those tablets the same words that were on the first tablets that you broke.... Moshe carved out two stone tablets like the first”.

Writing is described as the soul of a book. It needs a physical form, e.g. a scroll or book, to contain it, but it is the words that give inner meaning and purpose to that form. So too with the tablets. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, B’nei Yisrael (Children of Israel) had attained the highest spiritual level. In the forty nine days from the Exodus until Mt. Sinai, they rose up through the forty nine levels of spirituality to reach the level of Adam and Eve before their sin. It was as if their bodies had been directly created by G-d, like those of Adam and Eve. They were therefore able to receive the tablets that had been hewn by G-d Himself. At this level the inner light of the soul permeates the body so thoroughly that it is clearly visible. So too the tablets - the words are visible from either side.

After the episode of the Golden Calf, B’nei Yisrael descended to the level that we remain on today. Our physical bodies are all that we perceive. The only way that we can make the inner light of the soul shine through, is by constantly working on controlling our physical drives and desires, thus elevating our bodies to become a pure vehicle for the soul. This is analogous to the second tablets, which were man made.

We see from this that the way that we are able to receive the Torah is totally dependent upon who we are. In the world of physics it is obvious that a vessel must be suitable for its contents; Pouring boiling hot coffee into a thin plastic cup will melt and destroy the container. What is less obvious is that the same rule also applies in the spiritual realm. For someone to receive Torah at a higher level than that which they themselves are on is destructive. Therefore G-d made the Torah compatible with the spiritual level of the people.

This rule is equally applicable now as it was 3300 years ago when the Torah was given. The Torah is ready and waiting for anybody who cares to seek it. When an individual delves into Torah learning, he or she relives the experience of Mt. Sinai. This is shown in the Halacha regarding the weekly Torah reading. The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 146;4) states “One doesn’t need to stand while the Torah is being read”, and the Rama adds “There are those who are stringent to stand, and this is what the Maharam did”. The Mishna Brura explains “Even the Maharam agrees that there is no legal obligation to stand, but he holds that it is appropriate to go beyond the letter of the law and stand, because when a person hears the Torah being read he should feel as if he has just received it from Mt. Sinai, and at Mt. Sinai all of Yisrael were standing.”

However, we must make sure that we are suitable vessels to contain the Torah that we learn. If we are not constantly “carving out” our physicality to prepare it as a slate for the Torah to be written on, we run the risk of not being able to contain the Torah that we try to absorb.

Parshat Ki Tissa 2

Real Leaders

One of the most difficult things for a spiritual leader is to remain in touch with his or her people. It is so easy to become drawn into the spiritual realm and leave the physical, material world behind. However in so doing, a leader may become inaccessible and no longer able to relate to others. This was the fear of the people which led to the building of the Golden Calf. “The people gathered themselves together around Aharon, and said to him, “Make us a god who shall go before us, for Moshe, the man, who brought us out of the Land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.” (Exodus 32; 1-2). The people were not abandoning G-d, but thought that Moshe had become lost to them.

They wanted an idol, not as a false god, but to lead them. They saw Moshe enter into the fiery darkness of Mount Sinai and they were afraid that he was no longer able to relate to them as mortals. The Talmud (Shabbat) states that with each utterance of the Ten Commandments the souls of the people would depart, and they had to be revived by angels, and yet Moshe went to speak directly to G-d. The people were concerned that they had lost their intermediary, and no longer had any means of communicating with G-d. Therefore they created a new figurehead for themselves, “to go before them”.

We see that G-d was also concerned that Moshe was losing touch with the physical world, thus becoming unsuitable as a leader. “And G-d spoke to Moshe, ‘Go down, for your people… have become corrupt’” (ibid. 7). Rashi explains that G-d told Moshe to go down from his exalted position, because his eminence is only due to his being the leader of the people. If he is unable lead them he is no longer able to remain before the Divine Presence.
The people chose to make a calf, a domestic beast, because they were looking for a leader to whom they could relate, one who can translate their normal lives into a spiritual experience. A calf is trained to work in the fields, to do the most mundane tasks. That is the sort of leader that the people want and need.

The Torah hints to us why Aharon was the most suitable person to build this intermediary. He was the leader who retained his connection with the material world, despite his exalted spiritual status. The Torah describes Moshe as judging the nation “from morning until evening” (ibid. 27; 13). The Talmud comments on this that though he was not literally judging from morning until night, the Torah ascribes this to him to teach that anyone who judges a case fairly and honestly is considered a partner with G-d in creation, which was also created with day and night.
The S’fas Emes points out that Aharon is also considered a partner in creation. He is to light the Menorah from evening until morning (ibid. 37; 20). However there is a fundamental difference between Moshe’s creation and Aharon’s. Moshe takes the day, the clear revelation of the Torah and the Divine Presence, and brings in down to the level of night, the darkness and confusion of everyday life. Aharon’s function is the opposite; to elevate the world, in the chaos of night, and bring it to the level where it can hear the message of Divine Light. This is why Moshe sits in judgement, dispensing the truths of the Torah to the daily realities of life, whereas Aharon lights the Menorah, elevating the physical and turning it into light.

This is why the people asked Aharon to make the idol for them. They were able to relate better to his method of relating to the physical world and elevating it. They were not afraid that he would forget what it is to be human. Therefore he is the high priest of the idol also. Moshe the man has gone, the nation cry out for a new leader whom they can relate to, to bring them G-d’s message. Aharon is the one with whom they can speak, and the calf represents the physicality of the world, and the baseness of human existence, whereas Moshe represented spirituality. Thus the calf had to be destroyed in order to allow the people to attain the spiritual heights shown to them by Moshe. Though they were not on the same level as Moshe, they had the potential to be so and in order to do this the calf had to be destroyed as it held them back spiritually.

Parshat Ki Tissa

Sorry this was not posted before Shabbos. For a translation of exerpts from Tosefet Beracha on Ki Tissa follow this link.
Tosefet Bracha on Ki Tissa

Idolatry and Yosef HaTzaddik

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the sin of the Golden Calf. Many questions can be asked on this topic; how could the nation who heard G-d’s voice and accepted the Torah only a few weeks earlier suddenly rebel against Him and begin to worship idols? However, I want to address the issue of why, of all the idols they could have made, they built a calf. (Look in the Ramban’s commentary to this section for a kabbalistic idea). The simple answer is that they had seen the Egyptians worshipping cows, and were merely imitating the rituals of their former masters. However, it seems strange that having seen what happened to the Egyptians, and knowing that G-d was greater than any of their gods they would chose to revert back to that form of idolatry.

If we look at the words of the Torah we find that the original intent of the Israelites was not to build an idol in place of G-d, but rather in place of Moshe: The people gathered around Aharon and said to him, “Rise up and make for us gods that will go before us, for we know not what has become of this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32; 1). The word Elokim which is translated here as gods is also often used to mean judges, and thus the simple interpretation of this verse is that they want another leader in place of Moshe, who has disappeared. Only after the calf was built did some of the people begin to say that it was in place of G-d.

Moshe had been the one to lead them through the desert, meld them into a nation, and provide them with the Manna (which according to the Talmud fell in the merit of Moshe). When they looked for a suitable substitute they remembered Yosef, who had been the viceroy in Egypt, made Egypt into the superpower of the ancient Middle East, and provided food for the people through his careful planning and storing. He seemed like the perfect person to take over in place of Moshe. The only problem was that he had been dead for over 200 years. However, they were carrying his coffin with them, and they remembered the blessing that Ya’akov had given to Yosef on his death bed. “A charming son is Yosef, a charming son to the eye; the girls stepped the see the rising ox” (Genesis 49; 22). Yosef is associated with the image of an ox. When Moshe wanted to find where his coffin was buried in the Nile, he threw in a piece of parchment containing the words “arise ox” and his coffin rose to the surface. That same piece of parchment was used when they built the Golden Calf to bring it to life. (Midrash Shir HaShirim 1; 11).

However, there was also another side of Yosef that the people tried to capture in their idol, that of youthfulness. He is described several times in the Torah as a na’ar, an adolescent. Yosef throughout his life retained qualities of youthfulness, such as a desire to maintain physical beauty, a belief that nothing is impossible, and the naiveté and honesty which led him to be sold by his brothers in the first place. When Pharaoh elevated Yosef to power he tried to turn him into an ‘adult’ by giving him a new name and identity. Yet as we see from the verse above the girls were still after him, and he retained his charming youthfulness.

The people who built the Calf wanted these qualities in their new leader. Idols often take the form of youthful heroes, with invincible powers. The Talmud also tells us that the main motivation for the Jews to build the Golden Calf was to permit to themselves the sexual liaisons that had been forbidden by the Torah and Moshe. Therefore, they didn’t build an ox as their god, but a calf. The proof that the people were primarily interested in the youthful qualities of the Calf is from the Midrash (Tanchuma 8, quoted in Rashi v. 22) regarding the laws of the red heifer (which we read today as our special Maftir). Symbolically the ‘Cow’ came to atone for the sin of the ‘Calf’ as if to say let the mother come and clean up the mess left by her child. The Calf is the young child, created by the young nation, in their quest to escape from the confining laws they had received at Sinai.

The irony of the situation is that Yosef himself went to great lengths to prevent the Egyptians themselves from worshipping cows. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabti 712) explains that when Yosef told the Egyptians to “Bring your cattle (as payment for the grain)” (Exodus 47; 16) his intent was to wean them from their idols. However, his plan backfired on his descendants, who themselves began to worship the very idol that Yosef had removed from the Egyptians.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Moshe assembles the Children of Israel, reviews with them the laws of Shabbat, then instructs them in the building of the Tabernacle. Each person brings whatever their heart motivates them to bring. The women bring precious jewels and spun wool and linen. The men bring silver, copper, wood and cloth. The princes of each tribe bring the stones for the High Priest's breastplate and shoulder pads, and spices and oil.
Betzalel is designated by G-d as master craftsman and Oholiav as his assistant. Moshe summons them, and others with the wisdom and insight to build G-d's Sanctuary. The people continue to bring gifts every day, until they have more than enough materials. Moshe commands the people to stop bringing gifts.

The Torah lists the items made for the Tabernacle, starting with the curtains, the cover, the planks, the partitions and the screen. They the vessels; the Ark, the Cover, the Table, and the Menorah. The two altars - the Incense Altar out of gold and the Burnt Offering Altar from copper. A special copper wash basin is constructed for the Cohanim to wash their hands and feet. Lastly, the courtyard is made by surrounding the area with lace hangings with an embroidered screen at the entrance.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ki Tissa Summary

G-d instructs Moshe (Moses) to take a census. All the males over twenty must give half a shekel of silver, as an offering to G-d, and the number of people will be determined by counting the total amount of silver.

G-d instructs Moshe to make a copper washstand. The Cohanim must wash their hands from this before entering the Ohel Mo'ed (Communion Tent). G-d gives Moshe the recipe for the anointing oil. He instructs Moshe to anoint the Ohel Mo'ed, the Ark and all the other vessels, to sanctify them. Moshe must also anoint Aharon and his sons to sanctify them as Cohanim (Priests). G-d gives Moshe the recipe for the incense, which is to be offered in the Ohel Mo'ed.

G-d tells Moshe that He has selected Betzalel ben Chur as the main craftsman for building the Ohel Mo'ed and its vessels. Oholiav ben Achisamach will be his assistant. G-d tells Moshe to instruct the Jews about the laws of Shabbat, and the punishment for not observing it. Shabbat will be an eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish people.

Moshe receives the two tablets of testimony written by G-d. Meanwhile the people realise that Moshe has not returned when expected and feared he is dead. They ask Aharon to make them an oracle to lead them. He tries to stall them, but eventually melts down gold and a golden calf emerges from the fire. The people begin to offer sacrifices to this idol, and get up to enjoy themselves.

G-d tells Moshe to descend the Mount as the people have become corrupt. G-d threatens to destroy them all and begin a new nation from Moshe. Moshe asks for their forgiveness or else erase his (Moshe's) name from the Torah; G-d accepts his prayer. When Moshe sees the nation practising idolatry he smashes the tablets and destroys the calf. The sons of Levi punish the transgressors, executing 3000 men.

Moshe sets up his tent outside the camp, and the Cloud of Glory came to it. Moshe ascends Mount Sinai again and asks G-d to show him how He conducts the world. Moshe is told to stand in the crevice of a rock and G-d shows him His "back". Moshe is instructed to make new tablets and G-d makes a covenant with the nation; He will drive out the nations from before them and they will observe His commandments. They are commanded against idol worship, intermarriage and the combination of milk and meat and are taught the laws of Pesach, the first born animals, the first fruits, Shabbos, Shavuos and Succos. When Moshe descends with the new tablets, his face is radiant from his contact with G-d and he must wear a mask over his face so that people can look at him.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tetzaveh 2

They say that clothes make a man, but it is no less true that the man makes the clothes. This week’s Torah reading deals primarily with the making of the garments for Aharon, and all subsequent Cohanim Gadolim. The garments are described as L’Chavod U’L’Tifaret, “for glory and splendour”. They were fashioned out of elaborate threads and gold, with precious jewels upon the shoulder pads and the breast plates. As the representative of G-d, and the agent for effecting the atonement for the nation, the Cohen Gadol has to be an imposing figure, both spiritually and physically. The Talmud (Yoma 18a) states that the Cohen Gadol has to be greater than the other Cohanim in strength, beauty, wisdom and wealth, and if he is does not have wealth the other Cohanim must make him wealthy from their own pockets.

There is a discussion in the Talmud as to whether the Cohanim are the emissaries of G-d or of the people. On the one hand they offer the sacrifices on behalf of the people, and perform all the Temple services on their behalf; on the other hand they eat some of the sacrifices, and they have special laws that set them apart from the rest of the population. The Cohen Gadol is certainly both of these, the ultimate representative of the people when he enters into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to seek atonement for the nation, and G-d’s messenger when he returns from within the Holy of Holies to show the crimson thread which has turned white as a sign of G-d’s forgiveness. We say in Mussaf on Yom Kippur: Thus would he [the Cohen Gadol] say, “I beseech of You G-d, I have erred, been iniquitous, and wilfully sinned before You, I and my household and the children of Aharon… Your people, the Family of Israel”. At this point the Cohen Gadol is the representative of the nation. Then we say “How majestic was the Cohen Gadol as he left the Holy of Holies… Like the Majesty in which the Creator clothed the creatures - was the appearance of the Cohen Gadol.” He has become G-d’s representative, symbolising the atonement which G-d has granted to His nation.

The beautiful and ornate garments which the Cohen Gadol wears as he performs the services are necessary to show the people both the splendour of their representative, and to show the heavenly beauty of G-d’s representative. However, when worn by someone who is not worthy of being the Cohen Gadol, the garments transform from being the height of spirituality to the most base, physical excesses of opulence. The Talmud (Megillah 12a) learns from the opening of Megillat Esther that King Achashverosh had taken the raiment of the Cohen Gadol and was wearing them at his feast which was designed to show his wealth and might, and to celebrate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The text states that he displayed “Yakar Tiferet Gedulato”, “The splendour of his excellent majesty”. The word Tiferet is used to describe the clothes of the Cohen Gadol, which indicates to us that it was those that Achashverosh was wearing.

The result of Achashverosh’s wearing the garments was not his spiritual elevation, but the degradation of himself and his wife through clothing. In his drunken stupor Achashverosh ordered Vashti to appear before the assembled guests wearing only her royal crown. When she refused to be seen naked in public, Achashverosh had her put to death. By misusing the holy garments, Achashverosh was ultimately shamed and punished.

The Malbim explains the difference between the two adjectives Chavod (glory) and Yakar (excellent), which are the words describing the manner in which the Cohen Gadol wears the holy garments, contrasted with how Achashverosh wore them. Malbim (Ya’ir Or, Ot yud, 10) says that Yakar refers to rarity and preciousness of an object, whereas Chavod describes its value in terms of spiritual elevation. For example gold is Yakar, but it does not have Chavod, but a wise sage has Chavod even though not necessarily Yakar. King Achashverosh saw the garments as a precious commodity, and was showing off the wealth that he had looted. However this external pride caused him to become humbled. The Cohen Gadol wears the clothes to show his spiritual level, and self perfection as representative of both the congregation and G-d.

Of course, even the office of Cohen Gadol was open to abuse, and the lure of wealth became a factor in the appointment of the Cohen Gadol in the times of the Second Temple, as the Talmud (Yoma 18a) states: Rabbi Asi said “Two barrels of silver coins were given to King Yannai by Marta daughter of Baitus in order that Yehoshua ben Gamla should be appointed as Cohen Gadol.” The result was that the Cohanim Gadolim were not spiritually worthy of their position, and having entered the Holy of Holies in an unfit state would not survive a year in office.

Splendour is important when used as a tool for giving honour and glory to G-d. When it becomes the goal and the object of desire, rather than a means for spiritual elevation, it is degrading and brings tragedy in its wake.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tetzaveh 1

This is the only Torah reading from the beginning of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy that does not contain the name of Moshe. Even though G-d is speaking to him throughout the Parsha, nowhere does it explicitly state his name. Many explanations have been given for this; here is one possibility.

When Moshe first encounters G-d at the Burning Bush, he argues that he is not worthy to lead the Jewish people out of slavery, and insists that his elder brother Aharon would be better suited to the task. Our tradition tells us that this dialogue between Moshe and G-d lasted for an entire week, until finally “G-d’s anger burned against Moshe [and He said] ‘Behold Aharon the Levi is your brother’ ... ‘When he sees you his heart will be glad’...” (Shemos 4;14). The Sages comment on this verse,
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says: Every time the “burning of G-d’s anger” is mentioned in the Torah, a lasting mark is mentioned with regard to it. Yet this burning anger has no lasting mark mentioned with regard to it, and we do not find any punishment coming about. Rabbi Yose said to him: A mark is mentioned with regard to this one too; that which is implied by the conclusion of the verse “Aharon the Levi is your brother”. Aharon was destined to be a Levite, not a Cohen, and G-d had intended that the kehuna (priesthood) would come forth from Moshe. Now that you, Moshe, have angered me, it will not be so. Rather he will be a Cohen and you will be the Levite, as it says “But as for Moshe, the man of G-d, his sons will be reckoned among the tribe of Levi” (I Divrei HaYamim 23; 14). (Shemos Rabba 3;17, quoted by Rashi on Exodus ibid.)

This week’s Parsha deals primarily with the garments that the Cohanim wore, particularly those of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest). Since originally Moshe should have been the Cohen Gadol, in deference to his feelings, and as a reminder that he missed out on this opportunity, his name is not mentioned in this section.

However we find a paradox. Although Moshe’s name is not mentioned, G-d speaks to him in the second person; G-d is speaking to Moshe even more directly than usual. Not only that, but it is Moshe himself who is instructed to dress Aharon and his sons in their priestly garments, and Moshe acts as the “Cohen” who performs the service to initiate them into the Kehuna. In other words, at the same time that G-d rebukes Moshe, he draws him still closer to Himself.

This is a fulfilment of the Talmudic dictum “One should always push someone away with the left hand, but draw them closer with the right” (Sanhedrin 107b). The right hand is the stronger, and thus the Rabbis are telling us that any rebuke or punishment should be simultaneously accompanied by a greater kindness. We do not subscribe to the Dr. Spock child-rearing mentality, without any rules or punishments, drawing close with both hands. Nor do we permit harsh punishment to the extent of driving a person away completely, pushing with both hands. Both these options lead to tragic outcomes. Our challenge is to raise our students to adhere to their obligations, punishing when necessary, but always in a manner which leads to closeness, not distance.

Here the Torah is telling us that G-d follows the same guidelines. Throughout history we have seen that whenever G-d needs to punish us, causing us to stumble through he darkness of oppression and persecution, He always brings us even closer to Him at the end, through an outpouring of mercy. At those times that we cannot feel His presence, that we cannot see Him calling us by name, He is actually speaking to us even more directly, and giving us a greater opportunity to draw near to Him.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tetzaveh Summary

My translation of a selection from Tosefet Bracha on Tetzaveh can be found by clicking the link.

Parshat Tetzaveh

G-d instructs Moshe about the oil to be used for the Menorah. Moshe is told to separate Aharon and his sons to be the Cohanim (priests), and to make special garments for them to wear. The Ephod is only worn by the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), and is made out of six-coloured thread. It is an apron tied with a belt, and has two shoulder pads with two sardonyx stones on them, on which the names of the twelve tribes are engraved.

The Cohen Gadol also wears the Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgement). It has four rows with three precious stones in each row, each stone corresponding to one of the twelve tribes. The Urim V'Tummim (Lightings and Decisions) is placed inside the Ephod, and when worn by the Cohen Gadol can be consulted like an oracle. Next Moshe is instructed to make a robe for the Cohen Gadol. It is entirely techeilet (a shade of blue). At its base are "pomegranates" made of thread, interspersed with gold bells. The Cohen Gadol must also wear a Tzitz (forehead-plate) of pure gold, engraved with the words "Kadosh LaShem" (Holy to G-d). He also wears a linen tunic and a turban.

The regular Cohanim wear only tunics, sashes, turbans, and linen pants. These garments must be worn by the Cohanim whenever they perform the sacrifices in the Temple.

Moshe is instructed as to how to consecrate the Cohanim. Moshe must bring them to the Communion Tent and immerse them in a Mikvah (special pool for ritual purity). He must then dress them in their appropriate garments and anoint Aharon (as Cohen Gadol) with the anointing oil. He must then offer sacrifices on their behalf to inaugurate them.
Moshe has to consecrate the altar with the daily Tamid sacrifice. He is also instructed to construct a second altar, to be of wood covered with gold. This altar is only to be used for offering incense, except for the Day of Atonement when the Cohen Gadol sprinkles blood of the Atonement sacrifice on it.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Parshat Terumah 2

The holiest part of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was the Aron (Ark), which contained the two sets of stone tablets. On top of the ark was the Kapores, the cover upon which two golden k’ruvim (cherubs) stood with their wings stretched upwards. G-d’s voice spoke to Moshe from between these two k’ruvim, as the verse says, “When Moshe came to the Ohel Mo’ed (Tabernacle) to speak to Him [G-d], he heard the voice speaking to him from above the Kapores that was on the Aron, from between the k’ruvim” (Bamidbar 7; 89).

Idolatry is abhorred by Judaism, and making any image is forbidden, yet in the holiest place we find G-d instructing Moshe to place a graven image of two k’ruvim.

After the sin of Adam and Eve, when they have been banished from the Garden of Eden, we also find k’ruvim: “And He [G-d] banished mankind and He placed to the East of Eden the k’ruvim, and the spinning, flaming sword to guard the way of the tree of life” (Bereishis 3; 24). If these angels are intended to keep people away from the Garden of Eden, why are these same angels the conduit for G-d to speak to the Children of Israel?

The two k’ruvim above the ark had the faces of a boy and a girl. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) relates: “When the non-Jews [Babylonians] entered the Holy of Holies, they saw that the k’ruvim were intertwined in an embrace. They carried them out to the market and declared: Israel, who’s blessing is a blessing and who’s curse is a curse, are involved in these sorts of things? Immediately they despised them [the Jews].” In the most holy of places why do we have such physical intimacy depicted?

The word Kapores means atonement, and that was the function of the cover of the ark. The command to build the Mishkan was a response to the sin of the Golden Calf. Had the Jews not been involved with that sin, each individual would have been worthy of having the Shechina (Divine Presence) rest within them. After the sin however, it was only as a nation that G-d dwelt among the Jews. The Kapores, the resting place of the Shechina, symbolised that atonement and forgiveness. The k’ruvim and the Kapores were formed from a single piece of gold. Therefore the k’ruvim stretching upwards out of the Kapores were the bridge between the people and G-d. This was the point where G-d showed His forgiveness and closeness with the Jewish nation.

Rambam explains (Laws of Idolatry, Ch. 1) that idolatry began when people prayed to intermediaries rather than to G-d directly. They reasoned that if G-d is so holy and separate from the earth, people should not approach Him directly; therefore they prayed to the stars and constellations as messengers of heaven. Gradually they forgot that the objects of their worship were only intermediaries, and began to worship them as gods. This is the reason that G-d forbade any graven image. However the k’ruvim represent the opposite of idol worship. After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d no longer spoke directly to the nation, but the k’ruvim were the focus of speech from heaven to earth.

This explains the seemingly contradictory roles of the k’ruvim. On the one hand they guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden, to show that mankind are no longer able to speak to G-d directly. However they remain the link to the Garden, through which G-d communicates with Moshe and the Jews. Perhaps this is the meaning of the spinning sword, symbolising the dual function of preventing humans from entering, but allowing G-d’s message to be heard from without.

G-d’s message is the Torah, described in the Garden of Eden as the tree of life. The verse refers to the Torah as “A tree of life to them that grasp it” (Mishlei 3; 18). In the Mishkan, the k’ruvim were placed above the ark containing the Torah, with their wings stretched upwards. This showed that G-d’s communication for all time is the Torah, and that it is a taste of the Garden of Eden. The gateway between heaven and earth, between the Garden of Eden and the earthly Torah, is the most intimate place, the place of knowledge. Knowledge implies physical intimacy, as the Torah says (Bereishis 4; 1) “And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived...”.

The only physical analogy that we can have of the loving relationship between G-d and the Jews is the love of a man and a woman. The k’ruvim symbolised this relationship. They depicted two youths, the time when love is most passionate. The moment when the Jews encountered G-d at Mount Sinai is described as a bride entering the wedding canopy. This love was eternalised in the k’ruvim. The other nations saw pornography, but the Jews understood the spiritual metaphor, which led them to yearn to cleave closer to G-d. The Talmud says (Yoma 54a) “When the Jews came for the pilgrimage festivals they would open the curtain and show them the k’ruvim who were embracing one another. They would say, See the love between G-d and the Jews, like the love of a man and a woman. ”

Rabbi Akiva said (Yadayim 3; 5) “All of scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies”, yet it was almost banned (Avos d’Rebbe Nasan I) because it depicts the relationship between G-d and the Jews as the love of a man and a woman. There was a concern that it would be misunderstood as inappropriate Biblical literature. This is exactly the mistake that the nations made when they saw the k’ruvim .Rather than despising the Jews, they should have understood the metaphor, and been awed at the strength of their relationship with G-d.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Parshat Terumah 1

For my translation of selections from Tosefet Bracha click the link.

D'var Torah on Pershat Terumah by Rabbi David Sedley

Last week’s Torah reading ended with Moshe ascending Mount Sinai to receive the entirety of the Torah from G-d. Chronologically, the next thing that should occur in the Torah is the building of the Golden Calf. This takes place forty days later, and forces Moshe to make a hasty descent with the two tablets of stone, and smash them. But the Torah makes us wait another two weeks, until Ki Tissa, before continuing with the plot. In between we have what seems like a digression, detailing the plans for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all of its ornaments and utensils. Obviously the Torah was not compiled in a haphazard, random fashion, so why did G-d feel that it was most appropriate to place these two portions here?

Three of the pieces of furniture in the Mishkan - the Ark containing the stone tablets, the altar, and the table - share a common feature. They each have rings at their sides, into which the poles used for carrying them are placed. But the poles of the Ark are unique, in that there is an explicit prohibition in ever removing them from their rings. Even after the Temple was built in Jerusalem, these poles remained in place. Why should our holiest object require portability as part of its design? Clearly it was not simply for the sake of portability. Furthermore, the total weight of the Ark must have been several tons, far more than four people could carry on their shoulders. In fact, the Levites who were carrying the Ark gave the appearance of bearing the weight of the poles on their shoulders, but were actually holding on as the Ark miraculously transported them. Although it appeared that the Ark was being carried, actually it was doing the carrying!

We have a principle that G-d always presents us, as a nation, with the cure, before afflicting us with the disease. One example of this is the story of Esther. The Megilla first relates how Esther came to be queen and how Mordechai saved the life of Ahasuerus, and only then begins with Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews. Thus the mechanism for our salvation was in place before its need actually arose.

So too in our parsha. Had the Jews not built the Golden Calf, they would have remained on the tremendously high spiritual level that they attained at Mount Sinai. There would have been no need for all of the trials and tribulations which we have had to face since then, the purpose of which is to bring us back to G-d. When Moshe goes back up Mount Sinai to plead with G-d not to destroy the nation, he is actually creating Jewish history. He beseeches G-d to be merciful and to spread out our punishment over time, instead of wiping us out on the spot. To this day we are still paying back part of that debt.

The need for a history of anti-Semitism, hatred and pogroms, was caused by the building of the Golden Calf. Our exile from the Holy Land was decreed then. But in order to be able to survive this harsh decree, we could not be tied to a Temple, or to a city. G-d, and the Torah, must be accessible anywhere that we may find ourselves; otherwise we could never continue to exist as a nation in exile.

Therefore G-d decreed that we should build ourselves a Mishkan, a portable Sanctuary, which will follow us wherever we go. And the Ark containing the two tablets, the embodiment of Torah, must be ready to go at any moment. The need for portability and mobility is not because G-d has no other means of transportation available to Him, but rather to teach us that at all times and places the Torah is available to us. If we are prepared to carry its burden, which may appear cumbersome and heavy, it will in fact carry and sustain us throughout our journeys.

There were two Temples in Jerusalem. The first was destroyed by the Babylonians, the second by the Romans. We cannot depend upon them for long lasting security. But the Mishkan was never destroyed. It was buried, and remains hidden to this day, somewhere on the Temple Mount. It is indestructible, and is a metaphor for our continued existence, and connection to G-d. The Ark is portable, and accompanies us through our long and difficult exile.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Terumah Summary

G-d instructs Moshe to collect the materials that are needed to build the Sanctuary. He gives exact details on how the Tabernacle and other furnishings are to be made.

Moshe is instructed how to build the Ark of Testimony. It is to be made of wood, and covered within and without with gold. It has rings attached, and poles which are inserted in them with which to carry it. There is a golden cover for the Ark, on which two golden cherubs are standing with their wings outstretched. The tablets will be placed in the Ark, and the cover placed on top.

The table is also made of wood covered with gold; it too has rings and poles for carrying. On it are placed the showbreads, which are baked in special moulds that give them two "faces". The menorah is to be made of pure gold. It has six branches extending out from a central stem, each of which faces back towards a central flame.
These three items are to be placed in the Tabernacle itself. The Tabernacle is a tent, constructed of tapestries covered with a layer of goat's wool. These are draped over a frame of wooden beams. The Tabernacle is to be 30 cubits (about 45') in length, and 12 cubits (18') in width. Within this Tabernacle is to be a partition to separate the "Holy of Holies", which contains the Ark, and the "Holy" containing the table and menorah and incense altar. The partition is to be of sky-blue tapestry, with cherubs woven into it.

Moshe is instructed to build an altar for animal sacrifices. This is to be made of wood, and is to be 5 cubits x 5 cubits x 3 cubits (7.5' x 7.5' x 4.5'). It also has rings and poles for carrying. The altar is to be placed outside the Tabernacle, and both the Tabernacle and altar are to be surrounded by an enclosure. The enclosure is to be 5 cubits high (7.5') made of woven tapestry, and will measure 100 cubits x 50 cubits (150' x 75').