Archive | February, 2015

Commentary for Terumah

24 Feb

In this week’s parshah, the Israelites are commanded to build the tabernacle. Among the items in the tabernacle were the ark, which was used to hold the two tablets, and the caporet, the solid gold lid for the ark, with solid two cherubs on top of it. The ark was obviously an extremely holy item. It resided in the Holy of Holies, contained the two tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them, and its capture by the Philistines was treated as a national tragedy. The caporet, on the other hand, seems to just be a lid. Sure, it had some cool features, such as the fact that the cherubs would face each other when God was pleased with the Israelites and face away from each other when God was displeased, but what use is a lid on it’s own, without something to cover?


Surprisingly, our parshah tells us that when God spoke to Moses, the Divine voice would not emanate from the ark, but rather from a space above the caporet but below the cherubs’ wings. The ark contained the two tablets inscribed directly by God at Mount Sinai, which commentators have often noted contain within them the basis for all of the other mitzvot in the Torah. Wouldn’t this be a much more appropriate location for the voice of God to issue instructions from?


Pirkei Avot 5:16 talks about four kinds of Jews: Those who both study Torah and do mitzvot, those who do study Torah but don’t do other mitzvot, those who do other mitzvot but don’t study Torah, and those who neither study Torah nor do mitzvot. While sitting around and learning Torah is all well and good, it is not meant to be something we merely keep inside of us. God’s voice emanates from a space above the caporet, outside of the ark, because they are meant to be taken out into the world with us. It is one thing to know what you are supposed to do, but it is another thing entirely to use that knowledge and actually go out and do them.


Commentary for Mishpatim

13 Feb

There is a famous midrash about God shopping the Torah around to the various nations. God would go to each nation and ask them if they would like to accept the Torah. They would ask “what’s in it?” and God would give them some sample laws like “don’t commit adultery” or “don’t murder” or “don’t withhold wages from you workers,” at which point the various nations would say “No thanks. We’re not interested in following those laws.” Finally, God came to the Israelites and asked them “do you want to accept the Torah?” and the Israelites famously respond with the phrase found in this week’s parshah: “Everything that God says, we will do and we will obey (Ex. 24:7).” The word used for “we will obey” here, “nishma, is more simply translated as “we will listen,” and the expression has been used by Jews throughout the generations as a statement of faith. We will do what God commands and only then will we ask for the reason behind it because we trust that God will never steer us wrong.


For many people, this idea is hard to fathom. We as humans don’t like doing things if we cannot find some value or meaning in it. If we can’t see the value in it, we often won’t even give it a shot. For many Jews, many of the ritual commandments such as keeping kosher or various holiday laws fall into this category.


While the above midrash contains a very nice message about faith in God, it is interesting to note that this is actually the third statement along these lines that the Israelites make. According to Rabbi Elie Munk, the first (“Everything that God has spoken, we will do” Ex. 19:8) refers to all of the laws the Israelites had received before they got to Sinai, the second (“All the words that God has spoken, we will do” Ex. 24:3) refer to the Ten Commandments, and ““Everything that God says, we will do and we will obey (Ex. 24:7),” refers to all of the commandments God desires to give from that point forward. The Israelites did not make this amazing statement of faith blindly, but rather they made their decision based on past experiences. Each time God gave them a set of laws, they took it, lived it, and experienced it, and although they might not have understood some of them in the beginning, they came to understand the value and meaning of those laws. Over their journey to Sinai and their time there, they built up the sort of trust in God’s judgment that can only come from giving something an honest shot, and through those experiences they developed and strengthened their relationship with God to the point where they were ready to make such a remarkable declaration of faith.

Commentary for Yitro

6 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. While chapter twenty deals with the commandments themselves, chapter nineteen does the important job of setting the scene in which this revelation takes place. Exodus 19:4 contains not only the famous phrase “I have borne you on the wings of eagles,” but also the much less well know and more theologically puzzling end of the verse “and I have brought you to Me.” If God is omnipresent (and, indeed, during the Passover Seder, God is often referred to as “The Omnipresent”), why did God need to “bring” the Israelites to a specific place where God was?

The obvious answer to this question seems to be that the verse is meant in a spiritual sense, not a physical one, but this doesn’t seem to hold up within the Torah. Exodus 2:23 tells us that “their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God,” which tells us that they believed in God all along. Why, then, could the revelation not take place in Egypt, or by the Red Sea, or in Rephidim or Marah or any of the other places the Israelites stopped along the way? We have the same Israelites and the same omnipresent God who they believe in, so why wait until they reach this one place for this grand revelation?

In every stop along the way, we are actually shown God’s omnipresence through a display of Divine power in some way or another. In Egypt and at the Red Sea, God’s power as the Redeemer of Israel, the Eternal Judge, and the Master of Nature are on full display. At Rephidim and at the Red Sea, God functions as our protector. At Marah and at Elim, God provides for us by giving us fresh water where there previously was none and by giving us the manna. At Sinai, though, none of these facets of our relationship with God is more prominent than any other.

The preparations that Moses instructs the Israelites to take before the revelation are performed by each individual rather than by the people as a whole, with Moses or Aaron or someone else acting as an intermediary. When God offers the Israelites the covenant, it is not the mass group of “the nation” or “the Israelites” that respond, but rather “the entire people (Ex. 19:8) and it is again “the entire people” who are recorded as having experienced the revelation in Exodus 20:15. Each individual was a part of the covenant because Sinai was a place where each individual could explore his or her own unique relationship with God.

But if all of the Israelites are individually engaged in the covenant through their own unique relationship with God, then why have a revelation at Sinai at all? Why not just let it come to everyone in his or her own time?

A few parshahs later, we run into a similar theologically problematic statement related to God’s omnipresence, when God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to “make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).” To make a long story short, the lesson from this verse is not that God needs us to build a house for God or else God will be absent from the world, but rather that we need a space where we can come together to focus to help invite God into our lives. Just like us, if left to their own devices, it probably would have taken the ancient Israelites quite a while to find the time to focus on their relationships with God and to make themselves ready to accept the covenant. At Sinai, which served as a precursor to the Tabernacle discussed in Ex. 25:8 and to our modern synagogues, the Israelites were all given a time and a place to focus on those relationships, both as a community and as individuals within that larger community.

Commentary for Beshalach

3 Feb

In this week’s parshah we read about the splitting of the Red Sea and the Song of the Sea that the Israelites sing in praise to God afterward. The splitting of the sea marks the end of exodus from Egypt with God’s climactic defeat of the Egyptian army, ending the series of punishments God sends upon the Egyptians.

There is a famous discussion in the Hagadah of just how many punishments the Egyptians were stricken with in total. Rabbi Yosei the Galilean starts things off by noting that Pharaoh’s magicians warn him that the plagues are “the finger of God (Ex. 8:15),” while the Torah in our parshah describes the smiting of the Egyptians at the Red Sea as “the great hand with which God acted upon the Egyptians (Ex. 14:31).” If one finger is ten plagues, then one hand’s worth of fingers is fifty, making for a total of sixty plagues.

Rabbi Eliezer then quotes Psalms 78:49 which refers to the plagues: “He sent upon them His burning anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble; a band of emissaries of evil.” He says that burning anger, wrath, indignation, and trouble are all separate plagues sent within each plague, meaning that each plague is really four plagues, making forty plagues in Egypt and two hundred at the sea for a total of two hundred and forty. Rabbi Akiva, however, argues that the verse should be punctuated with a comma replacing the semicolon, meaning that “a band of emissaries of evil” should be considered a fifth plague component of each plague, making for fifty in Egypt plus two hundred and fifty at the Sea for a grand total of three hundred plagues.

One of the reasons this discussion is so famous is that it is many people’s first and most common exposure to the type of minutiae that is often debated in Rabbinic texts, and often with the outcome of the debate seeming to have no real effect on anything. What does it matter if there were sixty plagues or two hundred and forty or three hundred? Isn’t the important thing that God took us out of Egypt with signs and wonders and punished the Egyptians for their wrongdoing and defiance of Divine will?

Bafflingly, the Hagadah doesn’t even provide us with a definitive answer for this question. Instead it just segues into the next topic, asking “how many great favors has the Omnipresent performed for us?” before launching into the singing of Dayeinu (“it would have been enough for us”), which is a long list of things God has done for us. When taken within the context of the song, though, some of the favors listed in Dayeinu seem odd. Would it really have been enough for us if God had split the Red Sea for us but not let us pass through it on dry land? And would it really have been enough for us if God let us pass through on dry land but didn’t also prevent the Egyptians from pursuing us by drowning them in it? What would be the point of that?

Dayeinu is placed where it is in the Seder to juxtapose the discussion of plagues. The many great things that God has done for us can all be divided into even smaller components, all of which themselves are also great things God has done for us. Similarly, the plagues God smote the Egyptians with can all be continuously broken down into even smaller components, which are all punishments in and of themselves. It is not the numbers themselves that are important, but rather the thought process behind them.

The introduction to the Song of the Sea is usually translated “Thus sang Moses and the Children of Israel (Ex. 15:1),” but the first two words, “az yashir” can also be translated as “thus will sing.” Just as we remember and give thanks for the great deeds God has done for our ancestors, so too must we remember to recognize and thank God for all of the ways that God blesses us in our lives today.