Archive | February, 2014

Commentary for Vayakhel

21 Feb

This week’s parshah continues from the last few parshahs with the building of the Tabernacle, but while the past few weeks have just been Moses relaying God’s blueprints to the people, this week, they finally start the actual construction.  Before construction can begin, though, they need to acquire the materials.  To this end, Moses instructs the Israelites to “bring from among you gifts for the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them (Ex. 35:5).”  The Israelites respond to this call for donations in a way rarely seen in history.  They offer up anything that will be of use: precious stones, precious metals, wood, linen, cloth, dyes, and even goat’s hair.  Anything that will help build the Tabernacle, they are happy to donate.   “Morning after morning (Ex. 36:3)” at the crack of dawn they all showed up with more donations, even after more than enough material to complete the Tabernacle and all of its sacred instruments had been donated, until Moses had to flat out forbid them from donating any more.

The phrase “morning after morning” is used three other times in the Torah, all to describe actions that were repeated every morning.  First in Ex. 16:21 referring to the Israelites collecting the manna, then in Ex. 30:7 to describe Aaron’s duty to light the incense on the golden altar in the Tabernacle every morning, and finally in Lev. 6:5 to describe the duty of the priests to feed wood to the fire on the altar to ensure that it is kept burning perpetually.

All four of these cases represent facets of our relationship with God, both as individuals and as a community.  The incense was a mixture of many different ingredients, all with their own distinct smells, mixed together into one to create its own unique smell and used to serve God.  If any one of the ingredients were missing, it would not be acceptable for use because each individual plays an important role.  The manna did not just sustain the Israelite community; it sustained each individual Israelite because each individual is important.  When Moses called for donations for the construction of the Tabernacle it was not just the community as a whole making donations, but each individual Israelite donated.  Each individual has a unique relationship with God and each individual has something they can give.  So it was back then, so it is today, and so it will be in generations to come because like the flame the priests tended to each morning, our relationship with God is eternal.


Commentary for Ki Tisa

17 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the story of the golden calf, God’s anger at the Israelites for this grave sin, and Moses’ intercession on behalf of the Israelites and God’s eventual forgiveness of them.  These last two parts are chanted as the Torah reading for minor fast days and for the afternoon service of Tisha B’Av.  This section contains a few odd features, one of which is that it is the only time where we pause the Torah reading for the congregation to read certain verses before the reader repeats them.


We do this three times, first at “Turn from Your fierce wrath and renounce this plan to do evil to Your people (Ex. 32:12)”, “Lord, Lord, God of compassion and graciousness, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.  Extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34: 7-8),” and “pardon our iniquity and our sin and invest us as Your own.”  All three verses plead God for forgiveness and appeal to God’s attribute of mercy.  We chant them aloud and repeat them to both emphasize what we hope to achieve by fasting all day and to help get the congregation in the right mindset for the somber day.


Normally, when the weekly Shabbat Torah reading includes a section that is read specially at other times of the year, we include those special changes into the weekly Torah reading.  When the Song of the Sea (7th Day of Passover) or the Ten Commandments in Exodus (1st Day of Shavuot) are read during the weekly cycle, we rise as we would on those days and we read them with their special cantillation.  When these verses are read in shul on Shabbat, however, we read them as normal, with no repetitions.  Shabbat is supposed to be a day of joy and merriment, and it is difficult to be merry when you are spending all day worrying that you aren’t doing your part to help show God that we want Him to be merciful and forgive our sins.


In a similar vein, if Tisha B’Av or one of the minor fast days fall on Shabbat, they are (with one rare exception) moved to either the next day or, in the case of the Fast of Esther, the preceding Thursday. This is done because Shabbat is a time of rest not just for the body, but for the soul as well. As we learn in this week’s parshah, God id not simply stop doing work, but rather God “ceased from doing work and was refreshed (Ex 31:17).”

Commentary for Tetzaveh

7 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the  ceremony of the instillation of Aaron and his sons as the priests.  The Torah does not spare any details in describing both the preparation of Aaron and his sons and the nitty-gritty details of the ceremony and its related sacrifice.  Many modern readers have the tendency to tune out sections related to sacrifices, but to do so would be a mistake because every little bit of the Torah, even the space between the letters, is meant to teach us something.


As part of the ceremony, Moses is commanded to take some of the blood of the sacrifice and put it on the right thumbs, right toes, and the ridges of the right ears of Aaron and his sons.  There are two midrashim that comment on this odd choice of body parts.  The first comments that this is to teach us that in order to act as a representative of the people to God, a priest must walk among the people and must listen to them so that he understands them, and only then may he act on their behalf.  This is certainly an important lesson to learn in all generations, and might have been necessary to impart to Aaron’s sons in particular, about whose personalities we know very little, but Aaron has always been portrayed as being very in tune with the people, becoming a highly respected mediator because of his ability to comment and empathize with everyone.


A second midrash fills us in on what this ceremony provided for Aaron, and what it can teach us as well.  The Midrash Habiur teaches: “the ear that heard the words ‘you shall have no other god beside Me’ and then listened to the people’s demand for a calf; the hands which had pledged to serve God and the fashioned a calf; the feet that had climbed Mount Sinai and then hastened to do that which was wrong.” in the incident of the golden calf all had to be purged of their sin in order to be rededicated to serving God.


Over the generations, many commentators have tried to mitigate Aaron’s complicity in the sin of the golden calf, either by explaining his intentions in agreeing to build it or by saying he was afraid the people would kill him if he did not build it, but all commentaries acknowledge that, as the text says, Aaron played a central role in its construction.  Through this ceremony, God not only shows that He is forgiving Aaron for his misdeed, but God is also teaching us that forgiveness is not quite enough.


During the Ten Days of Repentance, we ask for forgiveness from our fellow man and from God, but recognizing our wrongdoings and asking for forgiveness is only the first step.  Part of atoning for our sins is doing our best to not make the same mistakes again and trying to instead channel the effort we put into sinning into doing positive things.  God does not just forgive Aaron for his role in the sin of the golden calf.  He also gives Aaron the chance to make up for his sin by using the same faculties that he used to sin to now serve God.