Commentary for Naso

2 Jun

This week’s parshah starts off much like last week’s concluded: with the allocation of duties in the Tabernacle to the various Levite families. This lack of change in subject manner is very striking. Usually when we begin a new parshah we get at the very least a moderate change in the subject matter, with the only exceptions being very long pieces of a single narrative, such as the exodus from Egypt or the story of Joseph- and even there the parshah usually ends at what we would normally think of as a decent point to begin a new chapter. Here, the text just marches on from one parshah into the next, still discussing the same thing, with no natural breaking point or cliffhanger.

After the remaining Levites have been assigned their duties, the parshah jumps around, discussing a number of different subjects. First there is a reminder to remove anyone who becomes impure due to Tzara’at, certain types of bodily emission, or by proximity to a human corpse from the camp until such time as they can be purified. It then talks about the laws for restitution of stolen property, the procedures and rituals for dealing with accusations of adultery, and the laws of a Nazir, before giving us the priestly blessing and then concluding with the offerings of the tribal chieftains for the dedication of the Tabernacle. While all of these subjects might seem to have little (if any) connection to each other, their inclusion together in this parshah teaches us an important lesson.

The parshah is bookended by matters that concern the Tabernacle, beginning with the completion of the assignment of the various jobs that need to be done, and concluding with the offerings brought by the leaders of the tribes to celebrate its inauguration. The Talmudic principle of zerizin makdimin l’mitzvot (“we act with alacrity and perform mitzvot at the earliest possible time”) seems to dictate that once the preparatory work for the Tabernacle was completed, the inauguration ceremony should have started as soon as possible. The division of duties for the Levites is the last instructions God gives on this matter before the inauguration, so why does the Torah divert to talking about a bunch of other things before concluding the parshah with the inauguration?

The first thing the Torah tells the Israelites to do after the assignment of duties of the Levites is complete is to remove everyone who has become impure due to Tzara’at, certain types of bodily emission, or by proximity to a human corpse from the camp until such time as they can be purified. These three types of impurities are ones that can spread to other people or objects through various means. Obviously we do not want the Tabernacle, it’s implements, those responsible for working in it or those whose needs are being served by it to become impure, thus we should take steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

The Torah then talks about one who steals from his fellow and what to do in the case of an accusation of adultery. These two matters might seem completely unrelated to the Tabernacle, but they are related to the people who serve in the Tabernacle and rely upon its operation for the their spiritual needs. Theft of property causes material harm to another, while initiating the ritual procedures for an adultery case will cause emotional harm, either due to the eventual revelation of the commission of the act or due to what proves to be an unfounded accusation.   These two passages remind us that while we now have this wondrous spiritual location to help us develop our relationship with God, our conduct away from the Tabernacle and in our relationships with other people is equally important.

After this, the Torah gives the laws of the Nazir, who makes a vow to God to avoid contracting impurity due to proximity to a corpse, and to abstain from combing, shaving with a razor, the consumption of all grape products, and the use of any sort of intoxicant, for a stated period of time. If at any point during this period of time the Nazir messes up and does one of these things, he or she must bring a sin offering to God and start over again. This passage reminds us of the importance of meeting our responsibilities in service to God. The Tabernacle serves an important ritual function for all Israelites, and everyone must do his or her part to ensure that it can continue to serve that function for the community.

Next we receive the priestly blessing and then finally we get to the inauguration ceremony. Having the Tabernacle is not enough; we must make ourselves worthy of it. Only after receiving these reminders from God can we then receive the priestly blessing and the gift of a special place to help us develop our relationship with God. The “dedication” offerings given by the leaders of the tribes at the inauguration ceremony are not just a dedication of the Tabernacle as a place to serve God, but also a dedication of ourselves as worthy servants of God.

Commentary for Shavuot

2 Jun

On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah, and what better way could there be to show our appreciation for this precious gift than by utilizing it? Thus, we stay up all night studying Torah, and then, during morning services, we do a public reading. Whenever we have a holiday that tells the story of a specific moment in time that is related in the Bible, our Torah reading for that day will either tell that exact story or tell the story of the closest available section while delegating the duties of telling the exact story to the section of the Bible in which it is contained. On Purim we read the background of the Purim story from the Torah, followed by the story itself in the Book of Ester. On the first day of Passover we read about that day’s events- the paschal sacrifice, the slaying of the firstborn, and the exodus from Egypt. On the seventh day of Passover, when the Red Sea was split, we read about the splitting of the sea and the ultimate defeat of the Egyptian army at God’s hand, while the Israelites begin their trek to the Promised Land. On Shavuot, then, we naturally read about the giving of the Torah and all the preparations therefore, from the moment the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai up through the end of the climactic revelation and the reading of the Ten Commandments.

 

Unlike the other holidays, however, the Torah reading for Shavuot does not stop there. Instead it continues for one more aliyah in which Moses starts to expound on some of the laws we just heard. What, exactly, falls into the category of the “sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or the earth below or the water beneath the earth” that we have just been forbidden from making? And if we can’t use these items as a way to focus ourselves on our God as our neighbors do for their gods then how shall we worship our God without violating this commandment? If we are to make an altar then what means and methods of construction are acceptable for it? And what manner of conduct that our neighbors might engage in during their ceremonies should we engage or not engage in?

 

These questions whose answers Moses provides set the tone for the process of Jewish legal thought, but their placement here and their inclusion in the Shavuot Torah reading teaches us another important value of Jewish learning: there is always more to learn. The story of receiving the Torah does not end with the glitz and glamour of the revelation at Sinai. It continues from the moment afterwards right up until this very day. After Shavuot there are no holidays in sight for almost four months, but as we learn from the Shavuot Torah reading, our celebration of receiving the Torah must still continue.

Commentary for Bamidbar

2 Jun

In this week’s parshah God instructs Moses to appoint the members of the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron to assist Aaron and his sons and their descendants in their priestly duties.   God notes that this role of special services was originally assigned to all male firstborn (of their mother) Israelites, regardless of tribe (Ex. 13:2, 15). Moses is then instructed to take a census of the total number of male firstborn Israelites, subtract it from number of Levite males (minus Aaron’s family), and have the remaining Israelite families on the list whose son had no Levite counterpart (determined via lottery) to serve in his place pay a small fee to the priests to make up for the service in the Temple that their sons should have theoretically been doing that will have to get done by a Levite working overtime.

While it seems natural that these instructions should all come in one section of our parshah, they actually come in two different sections, surrounded on both sides by a census of the tribe of Levi. It begins with Aaron’s family, then we get the announcement that the rest of the Levites will serve in the place of the firstborn, then a census of some of the remaining Levites, then the instructions to take a census of the firstborn, compare it to the Levites, and then have those who have no Levite counterpart pay the fee, and then, finally, the rest of the census of the Levites.

The second section of instructions offers us a hint into why the Levites were chosen to replace the firstborn. The first two times it appears in that section, the Hebrew word for firstborn- “bechor” is written without the letter vav, which is usually found in the word, but does not change its meaning or pronunciation with its absence. Peirush HaRokeach teaches that the word not being written out in the usual full manner indicates that the firstborn no longer have what should be their “full” status due to their participation in the sin of the golden calf. The Levites, on the other hand, had not participated in the sin of the golden calf, and immediately rallied around Moses when he returned and helped punish those had turned away from God (Ex. 32:26), and thus they were awarded the status that the firstborn forfeited with their sin. This explanation raises an interesting question: If all of those who turned away from God were put to the sword then any firstborn alive at this point would have been innocent of the crime, so why are they being punished?

The answer is that, Halachically, they’re not being punished. While God does instruct Moses to have the Levites serve in place of the firstborn, nowhere does the Torah say that the firstborn lose their mitzvah to serve. This distinction is important because of the concept of a shaliach, one who is sent by another to do a specific mitzvah on his or her behalf. The classical example of this is a father who hires a mohel to perform his son’s bris instead of doing so himself, as he is technically commanded to. Not only does the person still get credit for doing the mitzvah, but he or she enables the shaliach to also get credit for doing the mitzvah as well. Thus, by being either matched up with a Levite or by paying a fee to the Temple to ensure that the required work will be done by someone, the firstborn (though his parents, as his designated legal representatives until he reaches bar mitzvah) still gets credit for the mitzvah, and allows a Levite to get credit for it as well.

However, someone can only be a shaliach for a mitzvah that he or she is already obligated to perform (to continue the example, the mohel must himself be a father). Thus, God needed to declare that the Levites were eligible to perform the same service granted to the firstborn so that they could then perform the mitzvah on their behalf.

That being said, while the Torah specifically goes out of its way to ensure that the firstborn still have the de jure ability to serve, there is still a direct order from God that they have a Levite serve for them, so they are de facto prohibited from serving because doing so would be violating a commandment. What, then, is the reason that God saw fit to transfer these duties from the firstborn to the Levites?

The answer lies in with the only firstborn who still served in the Temple: the firstborn Levites. Obviously not all of the firstborn of the other tribes abandoned God for the golden calf or else there couldn’t have been more firstborn than the total number of Levites by this point, but we do know that the Levites were the only tribe from whom no firstborn participated in the sin. What made the Levite firstborn different? They were Levites.

Order of birth is an issue of happenstance, and rarely has any sort of effect on one’s values. Family, on the other hand, has a major effect. It was not just the firstborn Levites who remained loyal to God, but all of the Levites, because of the values they were raised with. To raise our children to have good values, we must teach them these values ourselves and do our best to surround them with people who share these values, just as the Torah teaches us by surrounding the sections containing the Levites’ reward for adhering to their values with names of the very families that raised them with those values.

Commentary for Behar-Bechukotai

24 May

This week we read the laws of the Sabbatical Year. God instructs us to leave our fields fallow every seventh year, and modern science has proven that this is very beneficial for the land, allowing it to replenish its nutrients, which is in turn beneficial to us as those nutrients are passed to the crops we grow and then to us. This has made this mitzvah a favorite of Jews who try to spread the good word to their non-observant fellows, and when combined with studies about the mental health benefits of Shabbat observance and other such things is used to weave a message that can essentially be boiled down to the following statement: “our omniscient God knows what is best, therefore it is best for you to do what God says.” And there is nothing false about that statement. The problem is that this approach tends to result in people viewing their observance of mitzvot through two possible lenses. The first is “I am doing this because I believe it is best for me” while the second is “I am doing this because God says that this is best.”
Both of these views share the same flaw, which is that they ignore the importance of the two-way relationship between God and us. Your doctor might tell you that you need to eat healthier and instruct you to eat less ice cream and more Brussels sprouts, or perhaps you yourself found an article online that said that people who replace ice cream in their diet with Brussels sprouts will lose weight. You might eat the Brussels sprouts instead of the ice cream, but most people aren’t going to be happy about it.

 

While one who fulfills a mitzvah simply because he or she thinks it will be better for him or her in the long run to have done so than to have not done so has still Halachically fulfilled the mitzvah, and one who fulfills a mitzvah because it is God’s will that the mitzvah be fulfilled is certainly doing something theologically laudable, something is missing when mitzvot are performed in such a cold, computational, almost emotionless way. In a week and a half we will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday where we show our joy in having received the Torah and all of the mitzvot therein. That sense of joy comes not because we like being told what to do and not out of some sense of selfish joy at having been given the secrets to wind up better off in the long term, but out of a celebration of having been given these mitzvot to help us explore our relationship with the One who gave them to us.

Commentary for Emor

19 May

Unlike English, Hebrew is a gendered language. This means that, like in French or Spanish, each noun is assigned a gender, and all pronouns, adjectives or verbs used for that word must be the appropriate form of the verb for that gender. Thus a large cup (masculine) would be a “cos gadol” while a large bed (feminine) would be a “mitah gedolah.” Searching for any special meaning or psychoanalysis for why someone millennia ago decided that a chair is masculine but a door is feminine is a fool’s errand, but this week’s parshah contains a situation so out of the ordinary that one cannot help but look for meaning in it.

 

In Lev. 23:3 Shabbat is described using the feminine pronoun, while later in the same chapter (Lev. 23:32) it is given a masculine pronoun. Even more strikingly, Lev. 23:32 where Shabbat is given a masculine pronoun, exactly mirrors a phrase we read last week in Lev. 16:31, except there Shabbat was given a feminine pronoun.

 

Shabbat has always been a bit of an odd one out. It shares the characteristics of a festival but it is not a festival. It is supposed to be separate from the rest of the week, and yet the regularity with which it occurs make it feel like it is part of the week. While the other days of the week have a corresponding partner day of creation, Shabbat’s partner in creation is to be the Jewish People.

 

Shabbat is, clearly, a bit of a non-conformist. It is a holy day on which work is forbidden, but it is not a festival holiday. It is part of the weekly cycle and yet it is different from the other six days in a way that no other day is. It is an essential piece of creation, but its role is spiritual rather than physical. Shabbat is described in the Torah as both masculine and feminine because it does not fit in to neat little boxes. Unfortunately, we humans like our neat little boxes because they make the world easier to understand, and thus when something doesn’t fit we read into it the things that we want to read into it to   try to cram it into the box we want it to go in, even though it clearly doesn’t fit. We owe it to Shabbat to let Shabbat be what it is rather than trying to bend it to our own ends.

Commentary for Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

12 May

Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s two parshahs, is closely associated with Yom Kippur. The first of its three chapters introduces us to the holiday and describes the Yom Kippur sacrifice and is thus read in synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, while its third chapter is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Leviticus 16:31 introduces us to the well-known phrase “a sabbath of sabbaths” that is often used to describe the holiday, and it is from this phrase that we learn that activities that are forbidden on Shabbat are also forbidden on Yom Kippur, even if they are permitted on any other holiday (for example, cooking). Due to this phrase Yom Kippur is seen as taking precedence over Shabbat and its laws always win out if there is a conflict. This perception of Yom Kippur as therefore being more “extreme” than Shabbat allows for an interesting Jewish brainteaser that asks, “name one activity that is forbidden on Shabbat but permitted on Yom Kippur?”

The answer, fasting, is often difficult to come by because it is something that is not merely permitted on Yom Kippur but fully required (as we learn for the first time in this week’s parshah in Lev. 16:29) and because fasting on Shabbat is not explicitly forbidden via the standard “thou shalt not” but is rather forbidden because fasting- i.e. not eating and drinking, conflicts with the mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat, of which eating one’s fill of food is considered an important part. While these might seem like minor distinctions that have little practical effect other than happening to make a brainteaser more difficult, understanding them actually helps us learn an important lesson about Shabbat.

While many people assume that the reason we are allowed to fast on Yom Kippur even when it falls on Shabbat is due to Yom Kippur being the “sabbath of sabbaths” and therefore taking precedence, the real reason is because unlike all of the other fasts (aside from the Tenth of Tevet, which only ever overlaps with Shabbat by an hour), on Yom Kippur we are fasting to help pray for a better future rather than to commemorate a past event. The future is inherently a spiritual thing. It has not happened yet and therefore cannot physically affect us. The present can obviously affect us physically, and even the past can do so in some cases (if you fell and cut yourself you might have a scar), but the future exists only in our minds. Shabbat is often seen as a day where we focus on the spiritual over the physical, but in reality it is a day when we focus on both the spiritual and the physical while doing our best to ignore materialistic wants. On Shabbat we are not only encouraged to pray and study, but also required to eat our fill at three different meals and encouraged to engage in marital relations, both things that fall into the category of physical wants more than spiritual ones. Rather, it is on Yom Kippur when we are intended to push aside both the material and the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, spending all day in synagogue praying and abstaining from eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, engaging in marital relations, and using outside substances such as make-up or cologne to make ourselves look and smell nice.

Shabbat contrasts with Yom Kippur and with the first six days of the week by helping us to focus on what we have. On the first six days of the week, when we are allowed to focus on the materialistic as well as the physical and spiritual, we are often distracted by the things we want. On Yom Kippur, when we push aside not just the materialistic but also the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, we struggle to not be distracted by the thoughts of things we already own but can’t use (such as food). On Shabbat we restrict our focus from the materialistic and a portion of the physical, and as a result instead of focusing on the things we want but can’t have or the things we have but can’t use, allowing us to enjoy the things we have that we either use regularly but do not always give ourselves the chance to appreciate- such as food, or might not otherwise think we have time for, such time for taking care of our spiritual needs.

Commentary for Tazria-Metzora

3 May

In both parts of this week’s double parshah we learn about the skin disease Tzara’at. Tzara’at is seen in Rabbinic literature as being a spiritual punishment more so than a naturally occurring disease. The sin with which Tzara’at is almost always identified is Lashon Hara (literally translated as the “evil tongue” but often taken to mean gossip and/or slander) due to the events of Numbers 12, where Miriam contracts the disease after engaging in Lashon Hara regarding Moses. Reish Lakish makes a further connection, noting that the term for someone who has contracted Tzara’at, a “metzora,” can be seen as an abbreviation for “motzi shem ra” (“one who brings a bad name [to someone/something]) (Arachin 15b).

 

The process by which one is declared cured of Tzara’at is rather complicated, involving temporary exile from the camp, the shaving of body hair, the washing or burning of affected objects, and finally, once a priest has declared the physical symptoms gone, a strange ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest gets a mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson dye. The priest then takes two healthy kosher birds and sacrifices one of them. Then the priest mixes the blood of the sacrificed bird together with the crimson dye, the hyssop, and the cedar, and dips the second bird in the mixture. The priest then sprinkles the mixture over the head of the metzora and then sets the second bird, covered in the mixture, free. Then the metzora must again shave off all of his or her hair, both head and body, wash his or her clothes, bathe, and then he or she is considered to be cured.

 

The reason for the shaving was a practical one: it was required before ritual bathing so that one could reenter God’s service. The rest of the ceremony, though, seems to be rather random. What do birds have to do with anything, and what is the purpose of the dipping, or setting one of the birds free?

 

The Gemara in Arachin 15b tells us of a saying: “gossip kills three people: the one who says it, the one who receives it, and the one about whom it is said.” Once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. There is no way to know who has heard it and who has repeated it. It spreads, insidious and untraceable, throughout the world, and just like the bird that has been set free cannot be caught again, there is no way to undo the harm that the gossip has caused. The words we speak have an almost unlimited amount of power, and it is our responsibility to use God’s gift of language responsibly.