Archive | May, 2014

Commentary for Naso

30 May

In this week’s parshah we learn the laws of the Nazir. A Naizr is one who swears a specific oath to “set him/herself apart for The Lord (Num. 6:2).” A Nazir is required to follow a series of very stringent rules, including not combing, cutting or otherwise removing his or her hair, not going near a dead body (even if it is that of a close relative), and abstaining from not just wine but from all manner of grape products (and, according to some modern authorities, all alcohols as well). In exchange for these restrictions, one who takes a vow to become a Nazir is “consecrated to The Lord” throughout his or her term as a Nazir (Num. 6:8).

When taking an oath to become a Nazir, a person can specify how long they intend to be a Nazir for, ranging from thirty days to the rest of his or her life. When a person completes his or her term as a Nazir, he or she is required to bring several offerings to the Temple, including, surprisingly, a sin offering.

It seems baffling that someone completing a term of service to God would need to bring a sin offering to celebrate the completion of this term of service during which they lived with a higher level of piety than usual, and it is a question that has bothered rabbis for years. It also seems odd that if there is some sort of sin involved, that someone who makes a vow to become a Nazir for life should be exempt from making this reparation offering despite serving a longer time as a Nazir than one who makes the vow for a limited period.

One important concept in Jewish ritual thought is the idea of “ma’alin bekodesh”- we increase in matters of holiness (and never decrease). Looking at it from this perspective, it is clear why a Nazir ending his or her term must bring a sin offering: as atonement for lowering him or herself from a higher level of service. The Torah understands that no one is perfect and thus it allows a Nazir to only serve a limited term if he or she so desires, but the underlying message of self-improvement encouraged by this principle is clear: throughout our lives we must learn more and do more to keep moving ourselves closer to God.

Advertisements

Commentary for B’midbar

23 May

In this week’s parshah, the tribe of Levi is assigned its special duties in the Tabernacle. God commands Moses to “bring close the tribe of Levi and stand them before Aaron the priest to serve him (Num. 3:6).” The Hebrew word for “bring close,” “hakrev,” appears in this form only three times in the Torah. The other two places the word hakrev appears are Numbers 18:2, where the duties of the Levites are more clearly spelled out, and in Exodus 28:1, when Aaron and his sons are appointed to be priests. There are many other words that would fit in some or even all of the three locations (for example, “command” or “appoint”), but the word hakrev is used in these three places, and only in these three places.

Each and every word in the Torah has been carefully selected from all of the words in the Hebrew language, and because of this, one of the major principles of Torah study is the concept that if the same word is used in more than one location, we can infer a connection between the those passages. In all three instances of hakrev, the people being “brought close” are being given important yet difficult responsibilities to fulfill. Judaism is a religion with many, many rules and prohibitions that affect our lives. While people often see responsibilities as a burden, Judaism teaches us to embrace them. We should not view them as a roadblock making our lives difficult, but rather each mitzvah should be treated as an opportunity to learn and explore and become closer to God.

Commentary for Bechukotai

19 May

In Jewish practice, we tend to emphasize the happy over the sad. We do not wish to mar Shabbat with sadness, so if a fast day falls on Shabbat, we move the fast to the Thursday before it or the Sunday after. We skip the sections of prayers that deal with sad subject matters not only on Shabbat and Yom Tov, but in the afternoon preceding them and the whole day following them as well. When we sit Shiva, we count the day of the funeral as the first full day, even though Shiva only begins after the burial, and we cut the seventh day of Shiva short, only observing it until the morning service. While we do not shave during the Counting of the Omer until Lag B’Omer because it is a period of semi-mourning, some people have the custom that we can override this restriction for any happy occasion, such as Israeli Independence Day or even something as simple preparations for Shabbat. While we do break a glass at weddings to commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple, we do not let the sadness of the moment overpower the day’s festivities.

The only place where the sad seems to receive more emphasis than the happy is in Torah, Haftarah, and Megillah reading. In the Haftarah and Megillahs, the standard way to emphasize sadness is by switching from the standard Haftarah cantillation to the cantillation from Lamentations. While the Lamentations cantillation is used for one verse in the Torah (Deut. 1:12, in which Moses laments his frustration with the Israelites for their constant quarrelsomeness and bickering), sections prophesying the destruction of the Jewish People for not following God’s laws are read extra quickly and in a quiet, subdued voice. This unique practice, combined with their extreme length (because we don’t end an aliyah on a sad note), seems to emphasize them over other “normal” sections of the Torah that might be more happy.

While these factors serve to call extra attention to these unsettling sections of the Torah, they also serve to call attention to Judaism’s overarching desire for a life of happiness in partnership with God. This week’s parshah contains one of these two sections of rebuke, and in this long section of warnings and prophecies of doom, there is one verse of hope (Lev. 26:42) in which God promises to remember the covenant he made with our forefathers, which is read in a standard Torah reading voice, making it stand out from the subdued, quickly-read verses around it. In this verse Jacob’s name is spelled with an extra letter, vav. Though it does not change the pronunciation or meaning of Jacob’s name, it adds an extra meaning to the overall message.

This instance is the only time in the Torah that Jacob’s name is spelled this way, and is just one of five times in the entire Bible. Conversely, the name of the prophet Elijah, whose return will herald the coming of the Messiah and the final redemption of the Jewish People, is normally spelled with a vav, but is spelled without one in just five places in the Bible. We learn from Proverbs 6:1 that a deal is valid if it is sealed with a handshake, and the Maharal of Prague notes that the letter vav, taken from Elijah’s name and added to Jacob’s five times, is long and narrow like a finger. Thus these five “fingers” represent a handshake; a sworn promise between a Elijah, a prophet of God, and Jacob, whose name is often used as a stand-in for all of the Jewish People, that God will always remember the covenant with our forefathers.

This might seem like we are digging very deep and stretching things to find an answer to our question, but this, too, is part of God’s message. No matter how bad things get, even if they are as bad as the terrible visions of doom in this week’s parshah, repentance and redemption will always be possible.

Commentary for Behar

12 May

This week’s parshah, Behar, in which we learn the laws of the Jubilee year, is always read during the Counting of the Omer. These two periods have a lot in common. We are required to count them both, and we do so in seven sets of seven (weeks for the Omer, Sabbatical cycles for the Jubilee), and in both cases we count forty-nine units (days in the Omer, years in the Jubilee cycle) in order to build up to an even more special, joyous fiftieth unit during which we celebrate our relationship with God (the giving of the Torah on Shavuot and God’s ownership over the land and our fealty to God and God alone in the Jubilee).

A deeper look reveals some very interesting contrasts and correlations between these two periods. While every individual Jew is commanded to count the Omer, the courts are tasked to keep count of the Jubilee cycles on behalf of the community. The Kabalistic tradition teaches that there are seven attributes that we are supposed to focus on improving in ourselves during the Counting of the Omer, while the releasing of debt slaves and reverting of property rights at the Jubilee is seen as an improvement of our society as a whole.

Strangely, though, the culminating “fiftieth day of the Omer,” Shavuot, is a holiday focused on the communal acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish People, while the day that the Jubilee year officially begins, Yom Kippur, is a day of personal introspection where we look at our own flaws and resolve to improve ourselves as individuals for the coming year. It seems backwards that period of focus on ourselves as an individual should lead up to a communal holiday while the major economic upheaval which the community is responsible for managing should begin on a day when we are judged for our individual actions (especially when there are other days on the calendar during which we are traditionally judged as a society, such as Shmini Atzeret or the Tenth of Tevet).

One thing that both days have in common is that they are both days when the Torah was given. While the initial revelation at Sinai occurred on Shavuot, a series of calculations by Rashi reveals that the on which Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets was Yom Kippur. One of the commonly used division for the mitzvot in the Torah is miztvot incumbent upon the individual vs. mitzvot incumbent upon the community as a whole. While looking at things along these lines can certainly lead to interesting insights, it is important to remember that they are all interconnected. The Gemara on Shevuot 39a warns us with the well-known statement “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh- all of Israel is responsible for one another.” It is our duty to help each other fulfill our individual responsibilities just as much as it is our responsibility as individuals to do our part for the community. Similarly, when we as individuals achieve a goal, the whole community celebrates with us, and when the community calls on us, we must ensure that we are ready to answer.

Commentary for Emor

5 May

This week’s parshah contains the mitzvah of Counting the Omer; a forty-nine day period that starts with the second night of Passover and ends on the day before Shavuot. Normally a period of time during which we are given extra mitzvoth to do is regarded as a time of joy, because we are more able to serve God, but the Counting of the Omer has taken on a more sorrowful tone.

 

For a certain length of time (which varies depending on your custom, though almost all include the first thirty-three days), we consider ourselves to be in a period of semi-mourning. We do not schedule joyous affairs like weddings or Bat and Bat Mitzvahs, and many take on other signs of mourning such as not shaving or getting haircuts, avoiding happy music, or not seeing comedic movies or plays.

 

The main reason for this comes form a story in the Gemara (Yevamot 62b) about a plague that wiped out twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s students happened during this period. The Gemara relates that the students died because they did not treat each other with respect and were jealous of each other. Even in their appointed studying pairs of just two students, they still could not get along. Having such a large number of those who are supposed to be devoting all of their time to studying Torah, a common bond among Jews everywhere, but were instead wasting their time bickering with each other made God angry, so God sent a plague to teach them a lesson. Sadly, none of them learned the lesson, and all twenty-four thousand died.

 

During the Counting of the Omer, though, there are two days on which most customs allow for the suspension of this period of semi-mourning. The first, and more modern of the two, is Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israel’s independence day (which takes place this Monday). The second, and much more ancient, is Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer. Lag B’Omer commemorates (among other things) the Bar Kochva Revolt in 132 C.E., in which the Jews were able to put aside the divisiveness and infighting that led to their failure in the Great Revolt of 70 C.E. and united to liberate themselves from Roman oppression, creating an independent state that lasted for two and a half years. This was the last independent Jewish state until the founding of the State of Israel, when the Jews of Israel once again joined together, becoming more unified than they had been in over eighteen hundred years, to once again fight for independence in our homeland. It is very appropriate that we break from our period of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s students by celebrating those who learned the lesson that they could not: We are much stronger united than we are divided, and to achieve this strength we must put aside our jealousies and grudges and prejudices, because ultimately, those will lead to our downfall.