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.