Archive | March, 2014

Commentary for Tazria

31 Mar

Judaism is a very inclusive religion that encourages as much participation as possible. With the exception of certain very specific mitzvot (mostly the performing of sacrificial rites reserved for priests), everyone above the age of bar or bat mitzvah is able to participate in and fulfill every mitzvah, regardless of gender, class, tribe, or marital status. This week’s parshah, however, seems to be all about determining circumstances in which people are considered to be ritually impure and are excluded from participating in communal mitzvot.

 

Though there are many other ways a person can become ritually impure, the two discussed in this week’s parshah are a woman who has just given birth and a person afflicted with the skin disease Tzara’at. The (admittedly short) parshah deals almost exclusively with these two topics. The only other subject discussed is the mitzvah to circumcise a boy on the eight day after, which, in the context it is presented in, seems like it was just a quick reminder that God decided to throw in because the birth of a male child was being discussed.

 

Standing in stark contrast to this theme of exclusion is this week’s special maftir. This maftir contains the first giving of the laws of Passover and the paschal sacrifice, right before the exodus. This is viewed as a major communal moment for the Jewish People. It starts with God instructing Moses and Aaron to begin the Jewish calendar on this date, contains the first giving of ritual laws to the nation en masse, the commandments for observing the first holiday. Every Israelite is commanded to participate and it is made clear that this observance will be a religious and cultural institution of the Jewish People for all time. It is a moment that takes the Israelites from a tribe with just one God and few quirky customs and transforms them into a nation and a religion.

 

So God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and they go to Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, with all of its laws, including those of ritual impurity, and when Passover was coming around the next year, some Israelites realized that they would not be able to become ritually pure in time to offer the paschal sacrifice. God ordained a second opportunity to bring the paschal sacrifice for the benefit of those who are either impure or too far away from Jerusalem to do so on the day before Passover (Num. 9:6 – 12) as a way to allow these people to still participate in the mitzvah.

 

Interestingly, the inclusion of the mitzvah of circumcision in this week’s parshah also creates opportunities for inclusion in the mitzvah for the classes of impure people in this week’s parshah. The one category of Jew forbidden from eaten the paschal sacrifice during the time of the exodus was an uncircumcised Jewish male. In order to participate in the mitzvah, any uncircumcised male would naturally want to have a bris. If someone believes that they have Tzara’at, attempting to cut off the lesions will render that person impure. The only exception to this rule is if the lesion happens to be cut off as part of a circumcision, thus allowing the person to become both pure and circumcised and thus able to partake of the paschal sacrifice.

 

Some commentators have noted that the most stringent period of impurity for the mother of a newborn male child ends on the seventh day, just in time for the bris, and that the celebration of the fact that the son was born into the covenant also allows the mother to once again take on more of her obligations in that same covenant.

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Commentary for Shemini

21 Mar

The 613 Mitzvot in the Torah can generally be divided up into three categories: mishpatim, eidot, and chukim.  Mishpatim (often translated as “judgments”) are commandments that make sense to us on their own, and our society probably would have come up with them (or some close equivalent) without a directive from God.  These are usually prohibitions against mistreating others or laws such as “love thy neighbor as thyself” that encourage a society in which everyone gets along.

Eidot (“testimonials”) are laws that, while we would likely never have come up with them on our own, make sense when viewed through the context of our relationship with God.  Because God ceased to do creative labor on the seventh day, we, God’s people, also refrain from doing creative labor every seventh day.

The third category, chukim (often translated as “decrees”) is the one that usually gets to people.  The idea of Chukim is best illustrated by the second verse of this week’s maftir: “This is the decree of the law that the Lord has commanded (Num. 19:2).”  That’s it.  God said so, therefore you should do it.

Chukim are mitzvot that appear to be entirely arbitrary decisions made by God with no rational basis whatsoever.

These mitzvot tend to come in two categories: Lifestyle restrictions that dictate what you can and can’t wear or eat, such as the laws of keeping kosher, which appear for the first time en masse in this week’s parshah, and proscribed ritual cures for states of impurity, such as the ceremony of the red heifer which we read in this week’s special maftir.  It seems impossible to explain what is so special about the combination of having split hooves and chewing its cud that would make only mammals that do both of those things okay to ear, or to explain why having the ashes of an oddly-colored cow mixed with some other random stuff and sprinkled on you would make you ritually pure again if you have come into contact with a dead body, but that is quite clearly what the Torah says.

Being rational creatures, most people seek to try to find some rationale for chukim.  Both Maimonides and Nachmanides strongly encourage this approach, and other haves commented that the search for a rational reason for these commandments adds a whole new dimension to performing these mitzvot.

Commentary for Purim

18 Mar

One of the most well-known customs of Purim is the custom to drown out the name of the story’s villain, Haman, by making noise and booing whenever his name is read.  This custom derives from the commandment to completely blot out the memory of the nation of Amalek, of whom Haman was a descendant.  That commandment, which is part of the special maftir Torah reading that we read every year on the Shabbat before Purim (Deut. 25:17-19), is bookended by two other commandments that seem to directly contradict it.  The first is to “remember what Amalek did to you” (the story of which we read from the Torah this morning), while the second, coming immediately after the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek, is a strong but simple “do not forget!”

 

These commandments seem to be paradoxical.  How can we possibly “blot out the memory of Amalek” from the world if we are required to keep it in our national consciousness?  Indeed, the custom of blotting out Haman’s name creates this same paradox:  How can we possibly be successful in blotting his name out if everyone comes to shul to fulfill the custom of doing so?

 

When Amalek attacked the Israelites, they did not send out their army to meet the Israelite army in battle.  Instead they ambushed the Israelites, attacking from the rear of the Israelite column, where the majority of people were young, old, or frail: those too weak to defend themselves.  They wanted to kill as many people as possible, purely for the sake of seeing how many people they could kill.  For this reason, Amalek has become a metaphor for those who would prey on the weak, and those would kill and do evil purely for evil’s sake.  Though our comfortable lives sometimes make it easy for us to forget, such people do exist in the world, and if they gain power, they can commit horrible atrocities.  Just as Amalek emerged again to try to exterminate the Jews even after their crushing defeat at the hands of King Saul (which we read in yesterdays Haftarah), the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, Theoneste Bagosora, and Saddam Hussein always emerge no matter how many times their ilk are defeated.

By remembering Amalek, we are training ourselves to be ever vigilant, so that we can stop their ilk from rising up before they can carry out their evil designs, just as (*SPOILER ALERT!*) Mordechai and Esther do to Haman in the story of Purim.  By confronting and defeating evil, we do our part to eliminate it from the world.

Commentary for Tzav

14 Mar

In this week’s parshah we are given the commandment to keep a flame burning eternally in the Tabernacle.  Similar things such as setting lamps and incense to burn in the morning and in the evening had been mentioned during the Tabernacle’s construction during the book of Exodus, but a fire that specifically “shall be kept burning, not to go out” is first mentioned in Lev. 6:5.  This fire, described in the next verse as “perpetual” has become a strong symbol for the relationship between the Jewish People and God.

The metaphor of a perpetually burning flame representing the relationship between the Jews and God has been explained in many different, equally correct ways over the ages.  Some have focused on to the eternal nature of the flame, while others have latched onto the idea of the flame itself to explain that in times of difficulty, God will always be there to light the way for us, while still others have noted that just as fire burns wood and turns it into energy, so to can we use our relationship with God to turn mundane objects into things used for a spiritual purpose, among many other explanations.

While the metaphors all teach different lessons, they all share one important basis: God and man come together in a partnership.  One provides a foundation and the other acts upon that foundation.  Appropriately, this relationship is found in the upkeep of the flame itself.  In Lev. 6:5, the priests are commanded to feed wood to the fire every morning to keep it burning.  In Pirkei Avot 5:7, we learn that God ensured that fire would not go out when it rained. God and the Jewish People work together in a partnership that will be eternal so long as we have the desire to fuel it.

Commentary for Vayikra

7 Mar

This week’s parshah is almost entirely dedicated to the instructions for performing various sacrifices.  This section often comes across as uninteresting to modern readers because almost all of it is a recitation of procedures.  A more in-depth study of all of the facets of the sacrifices reveals that they are not just a list of directions, but they also help us understand how to feel while giving the sacrifices and many lessons that we can apply to our everyday lives.

 

One of the biggest reasons why this aspect of the sacrifices seems to have been lost to us is that since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have not given sacrifices.  Over the last two thousand years, our connection to the performance of the ritual has faded away.  When performing a mitzvah, the mindset you have and the exploration of the feelings it evokes are just as important as following the correct procedure.  In order to preserve our rituals in their purest form, we must explore all facets of them, both going into them and afterwards, and use them to better understand our connection to God.

 

While our ability to perform sacrifices has been out of our control for two millennia, there are many other wonderful rituals that we can still .  Indeed, we must cleave to these rituals, or, like the sacrifices, the all-important emotional connection to them will be lost.

Commentary for Pekudei and Shabbat Shekalim

3 Mar

This week’s parshah starts off with an accounting of all of the metal donated for the construction of the Tabernacle, and what piece or instruments of the Tabernacle that metal was used to make.  This total included both the donations offered in last week’s parshah and the mandatory tax of half a shekel levied upon every Israelite male aged twenty years or older, as was commanded in the beginning of parashat Ki Tisa, which we read as this week’s special maftir.  This tax, collected annually, would go to purchasing of sheep for the two sacrifices given on behalf of the whole Jewish People every day of the year.  The tax was due on the first day of the month of Nissan, which marked the beginning of a new fiscal year.  In order to give people time to collect the money and pay the tax, the Rabbis instituted the reading of this special maftir on Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Adar as a reminder that this tax was soon due.  After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbis instituted a mitzvah of giving three coins equal to half the standard unit of currency to the local shul for the purposes of helping with the upkeep and feeding the poor at this time of year in order to help remember the biblical commandment.

In more recent times this mitzvah has become closely associated with Purim, despite the fact that the biblical commandment predates Purim by almost a millennium.  In most communities the collection of this donation usually occurs after the afternoon service on the day before Purim; the Fast of Esther.  The Fast of Esther is observed in commemoration of the fast undertaken by the Jews of Shushan in solidarity with Esther as she prepared herself to appear before the king and set into motion her plan to save the Jewish People from Haman’s decree.  In exchange for a royal order to kill the Jews, Haman offers to pay the king a large amount of silver.  The Gemarah (Megillah 13b) notes this and points out that God had a countermeasure already in place against Haman’s plan: the annual tax of a half-shekel of silver. In addition to supporting the Temple, the tax’s age and gender restriction also allowed it to function as a census for a military draft if one was necessary.

Megillat Esther readily admits that such a military action was necessary to defend the Jewish People against those who tried to carry out Haman’s plan even after Esther had convinced the king to rescind his decree, it is quickly glossed over because it is not something we are supposed to focus on.  There is nothing wrong with being ready to defend yourself, but violence should only be done when all other options have been exhausted.  While the half-shekel tax can function as military census, we would much rather use it as it is used in this week’s parshah; for its designated purpose is to support the community’s holy endeavors