Archive | April, 2014

Commentary for Kedoshim

25 Apr

Chapter nineteen in this week’s parshah contains what is often referred to as the “Holiness Code.” It is filled with many laws about the treatment of both ourselves and others, and many of the most week-known commandments in the Torah come from this section, including “do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block in front of the blind,” “do no stand idly by on the blood of your neighbor,” and “love your fellow as yourself.” Also included in this section are a few ritual and agricultural laws on the theme of separateness, reinforcing the idea that while we might mix with non-Jews, we must still hold ourselves to God’s high standard of moral behavior.


Just after this section begins, the Torah takes a short but strange detour in verses 5-8 to talk about the prohibition against eating two specific types of sacrificial meat that becomes impure. The first is notar, which is meat that was left over beyond the allotted time to eat the meat of that sacrifice, and the second is pigul, which is meat that was sacrificed with the intention of eating it after its allotted time (meaning that pigul may not be eaten even within its allotted time).   In the case of pigul the meat becomes forbidden because of an intention to do the wrong thing, while notar meat becomes forbidden either through negligence or, as Hoffman suggests, a lack of considering the needs of others (even if you can’t finish the meat yourself, you could invite others- and Hoffman specifically mentions the poor- to help you finish it within the allotted time). No matter which reason it is, though, the meat has become prohibited.


This same idea can be applied to all of the laws of the “Holiness Code.” It does not matter if it was done with malicious intentions, through the negligence of not thinking about what the results of your actions might be, or through not taking the needs and considerations of others into account when you act; you have still done something wrong, and it is your responsibility to try to correct it.

Commentary for End of Pesach

20 Apr

On the seventh day of Passover we read the Song of the Sea, the first of the poetic, specially-formatted sections called “songs” in the Bible which record momentous Israelite victories over their foes. Rather than the standard columns of text with spacing (sometimes half a line, sometimes until the end of the line) between the paragraphs, these passages are written with spaces of set lengths coming between each phrase in a pattern. These patterns can take two forms: One has the text of each line split up into two columns with a set space in the middle of them, while the other has the text alternate lines between the first pattern and a pattern of one lone word on each side of the column with a smaller space between those words and a phrase of text set in the middle of the column.

(Tried to make an example here, but it was a pain in the butt.  Find a Chumash if you need help visualizing.

The rabbis refer to the columns as “walls” and to the phrases that make them up as “half bricks” (short phrases) and “full bricks” (longer phrases). Given the events of the story, one would assume that the Song of the Sea would be the first pattern. The imagery fits in perfectly, with what is normally one column being separated into two, creating a space in the middle, just as God did for the Israelites and the Israelites in the “space” on the scroll being surrounded by “a ‘wall’ for them, on their right and on their left” as is described in Ex. 14:22 and 28, which are the only two verses not part of the song itself which are read with the same special cantillation used for the song. Furthermore, one would think that a large, full wall of bricks would be a reminder of the bricks the Israelites were forced to make as slaves in Egypt (which we commemorate with charoset on Passover).

The Rabbis take a much different view, though. They note that the “songs” which focus on the destruction of Israel’s enemies (such as the listing of Haman’s ten sons in Esther 9:7-9 or the list of the Canaanite kings the Israelites defeat in Joshua 12:9-24) are all recorded in the first pattern. Their “walls” look like unstable towers that could be easily toppled and brought down, just as God did to the men whose names comprise the words of those weak walls.

The walls of the “songs” that focus on God’s active role in our salvation through miraculous, clearly supernatural actions like the Song of the Sea, use the second pattern, which the rabbis note looks like one strong firm wall full of bricks. If we put our faith in God, God will support us, just the bricks of this wall of the Song of the Sea support each other, and just as God supported the Israelites in their time of need.

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach

18 Apr

After the sin of the Golden Calf, God contemplates destroying the Israelites, but Moses pleads on their behalf and God relents. Where this week’s Torah reading picks up, God has agreed not to outright destroy the Israelites, but hints to Moses that he is considering letting the Israelites make the journey to the Promised Land without Divine protection. Rather than just asking God to reconsider, Moses instead strangely pleads to be allowed to see God’s Presence. God agrees in part, telling Moses that although no one can survive such direct contact with God, God will “put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but My face must not be seen (Ex. 33:22-23).” After this strange request is partially fulfilled, God decides to relent in His punishment of the Israelites, reveals the thirteen Divine attributes of mercy (which we invoke on fast days and Yom Kippur), and then vows to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.


While no explanation is given for God’s apparent change of mind, this is the least of the theological difficulties this passage creates. Because God does not have a physical body, the Rabbis attempted to determine what it was that Moses actually saw. The answer, as presented by Rav Chana bar Bizna in the name of Rabbi Shimon Chasida is that Moses saw the knot on the back of God’s metaphorical tefillin (Berachot 7a).


The Gemara had already proved that God wears metaphorical tefillin, and in that discussion, attempts to determine what passage might be written in the various compartments of God’s metaphorical tefillin. They determine that just as our tefillin contains verses praising God for God’s uniqueness and for taking us out of Egypt, God’s tefillin must contain verses with similar themes (Berachot 6a). Included among these verses is Deut. 4:34: “has any god miraculously taken for himself one nation out of the midst of another, with tests and signs and wonders; with war and with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and awesome power as The Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?”


The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 16th & 17th century, Poland) explains that tefillin are worn as a sign of the special relationship between God and the Jewish People, and cites as a proof text the well-known verse “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me” from Song of Songs (which is also traditionally read on Shabbat Chol Hamoed of Passover). While explaining how He will only partially grant Moses’ request to behold the Divine Presence, God tells Moses “I will make all of My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name The Lord before you, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show (Ex. 33:19).” Moses, who had refused a glimpse of the Divine Presence at the Burning Bush, not considering himself worthy, now asks God for this favor to see what he had previously asked not to see so that he could communicate his plea for the Israelites to God as directly as possible, and in return, God showed Moses the sign of His love for the Israelites, relented from His punishment, and forgave His people, then set out with them to fulfill His promise to our forefathers to bring them to the Promised Land.

18 Apr

The Passover Seder is one of the most universally observed Jewish rituals. Every year Jews all over the world trek from far and wide to the houses of their friends or family to share a festive meal, drink four cups of wine, and retell a story they have heard many times before, and it is easy to see why. The Seder is an enduring story of our people, surrounded by good food and good company, all of which is rife with symbolism. Some of it, like the matzah and the bitter herbs, are explained right there in the Haggadah, while others like the carpas (we eat a green vegetable to mark the coming of spring) or the zany occurrences in Chad Gadya require a bit of deeper digging. In the end, though, everything serves its purpose and teaches its own unique lesson that adds to the experience of the Seder.

The one exception to this seems to be korech, the eating of matzah and bitter herbs (with some charoset) and in Temple times, the paschal sacrifice, all together. At this point in the Seder we have just eaten both the matzah and the bitter herbs (with some charoset), and we have already explained them during the story, so what is the purpose of eating them all together now?

The entire text of this section of the Haggadah reads: “In remembrance of the Temple, we do as Hillel (a very famous and important Rabbi who lived in the 1st century BCE) did when the Temple still stood: He would combine the paschal sacrifice, matzah, and bitter herbs in to a sandwich and eat them together, to fulfill what is written in the Torah: ‘They shall eat it with matzah and bitter herbs’ (Num. 9:11).”

On the surface this explanation seems fine, but some basic investigation reveals one major problem with it: The verse cited is not actually talking about the paschal sacrifice that would be eaten on Passover, but rather about a make-up paschal sacrifice that would be conducted a month later for the benefit of those who were in a state of ritual impurity due to contact with a corpse during the regular time to bring the paschal sacrifice. Furthermore, the Gemarah in chapter ten of tractate Pesachim, (from where we take the structure and most of the customs of the Seder) records that most of the rabbis of Hillel’s time and of the time of the Gemarah disagreed with Hillel’s practice, fearing that the matzah and bitter herbs needed to be eaten separately or else one would not fully experience the taste (and thus not fully connect to the symbolism of both) and thus not truly fulfill either mitzvah (Pesachim 115a). Why, then is the korech sandwich included as part of our Seder?

As we learned earlier in the Seder, the bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The paschal sacrifice represents our freedom and the joy we take in it. The matzah is referred to as both the “bread of affliction” and the “bread of freedom.” The charoset, represents slavery through its resemblance to the mortar the Israelites were forced to make, but its sweetness is also used to temper the bitterness of the herbs- just a bit- to represent the comfort we can find in God in, even in the hardest of times. The people who were mostly likely to need this second opportunity to offer the paschal sacrifice to which the verse Hillel cites refers were those who have recently lost a loved one, and Hillel’s mixture of foods representing both the bitterness of slavery and the joy freedom; hardship and comfort, and eating them as one at this joyous festival meal teaches us to try to look for the positive in all of life’s hardships. If we had not suffered as slaves in Egypt, we could never have been redeemed.

Commentary for Acharei Mot

11 Apr

Most of this week’s parshah is also read on Yom Kippur, with chapter sixteen being read in the morning and chapter eighteen read in the afternoon. While chapter sixteen describes the service of the High Priest, chapter eighteen focuses on various prohibited behaviors. After a quick preface, the section is started with the commandment that “you shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you (Lev. 18:3).” The Torah then proceeds to spend the rest of the chapter running down a list of who can’t sleep with or sacrifice things to. If the Torah was going to spell out all of these prohibitions, why was the original statement necessary?

This week is also Shabbat Hagadol: the Shabbat directly preceding Passover. We can derive from the Gemarah (Shabbat 87b) that the first Shabbat Hagadol took place on the tenth of Nissan. This would have been the same day that the Israelites were instructed to choose a lamb for the paschal sacrifice. The Tosafot present a midrash that says that when the Egyptian firstborn saw that the Israelites were choosing lambs for sacrifice, they realized that the Israelites were preparing for the final plague (which Moses had announced in Ex. 11). Seeing this, they went to Pharaoh’s court and begged for Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that their lives would be spared, but Pharaoh and his courtiers would not relent, causing a brief civil war in Egypt of father against son.

This week’s special haftarah, a prophecy of coming redemption and judgment of the wicked and imploring the people to turn back to God, ends with a strange but striking promise and warning: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearsome day. And he will reconcile parents with children and children with parents so that when I come I do not strike the land with utter destruction (Mal. 3:23-24).” Pharaoh and his courtiers so badly wanted to keep the Israelites in slavery that they were willing to sacrifice their own children to do so. The Canaanites were well known for sacrificing their children to the idol Molech (which is explicitly prohibited in Lev. 18:21). It was not just the specific practices listed in Lev. 18 that the Israelites were commanded not to imitate, but the entire concept of doing something so wholly unnatural within a family that parents ad children would hard or even kill each other, as the Egyptians and Canaanites did, that is so abhorrent to God that God would be willing to lay down such utter destruction because of it.


In memory of Seymour Sobel (Shmuel Betzalel ben Mordechai David v’Sarah Tovah) z”l- A man who fully embodied both ends of the idea of Torah u’madah, and who set an example that things are worth fighting for.  May his memory be a blessing.

Commentary for Metzora

4 Apr

Like last week’s parshah, this week’s parshah also mostly deals with the disease Tzara’at. While this week’s parshah deals more with curing the disease (and its resulting ritual impurity) than diagnosing it, it does add a third form of the disease to the pre-existing two: Tzara’at that infects a house.

There are several differences between Tzara’at of a house and the other two forms (Tzara’at that infects clothing and Tzara’at that infects a person). One of the most interesting is in the way the subject is brought up in the Torah. For the first two types of Tzara’at, the section starts with phrases like “When a person has (Lev. 13:2)” or “when a garment has (Lev. 13:47),” making Tzara’at seem like any other infection that someone might contract, except that Tzara’at happens to cause ritual impurity. With Tzara’at of a house, on the other hand, God is very clear about why a house becomes infected: “and I put a plague of Tzara’at on a house (Lev. 14:34).”  The Gemara teaches that plagues come about because of various sinful behaviors (Arakhin 16a), and many stories in the Bible back this idea up, whether with a literal plague of sickness or a metaphorical plague of famine or foreign oppression, as often happens in the Prophets, (usually after warning to “cease sinning or else” were ignored).

Tzara’at is this same type of plague brought on by moral corruption, but on an individual level. First, the Tzara’at would only manifest itself in small are of the house. In preparation for the official diagnosis by the kohen (priest), everything was emptied out of the house. Then, for seven days, the house would be left empty and uninhabited. After that seven days was up, the kohen would return and see if the Tzara’at was still spreading. If it was, the kohen would proscribe that the infected areas be torn out and replaced and that entire inner surface of the house be scraped off and replaced, with the infected, impure materials dumped outside the city. If the plague did not return, then all was good, but if he plague broke out a second time, the entire house needed to be torn down and rebuilt with new materials.

Just like the prophet telling the people to repent, the first appearance of Tzara’at is a warning. If the person understands the warning and ceases his or her wrongdoing, then he or she only needs to suffer the loss of part of the house. If the warning is not heeded, though, the person will lose the entire house. And if her or she still refuses, the next house as well, and the even the next until the immoral action is ceased.

In our modern world, the idea of God speaking to us on an individual level like the stories in the Bible is often seen as somewhat silly. Most people assume that God has more important things to worry about than micromanaging every little decision they make. The truth, though, is that God does care about everyone, and sometimes God might send us a message in some form or another to help us make decisions. Our job is to make sure we can see it if it comes.




In memory of Mickee Lublang (Manya bat Yakov Leib haLevi v’Ester Feiga) z”l- a true eshet chayil, who set an amazing example of Yiddishkeit for  over 90 years.   Mickee’s passion and commitment to her family, her friends, and her synagogue were an inspiration to all who knew her and a standard that all should aspire to.  May her memory be a blessing.