Archive | March, 2015

Commentary for Tzav

30 Mar

This week’s parshah contains one of the rarest and most difficult cantillation marks in the entire Torah: Shalshelet. Appearing just four times in the entire torah, and only appearing on verbs in the third person singular, Shalshelet’s extreme length, zig-zagging shape, and zig-zagging music are used to denote an extreme inner struggle on the part of a person about whether or not to do the action in question.


In our parshah, the person is Moses and the action he is struggling with performing is sacrificing a ram at the ceremony to officially inaugurate Aaron as the High Priest and Aaron’s descendents as the priestly line. The reason that Moses, God’s faithful servant, is struggling with an action that seems fairly routine for someone like him is that Moses covets this position for himself. After all, it was he who went up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, he who pleaded on behalf of the people when they made the Golden Calf, and he through whom God communicates new laws and ordinances to the people. Why should Aaron, his sidekick, be the one who receives this big honor?


Jealously is not an emotion we generally associate with our great religious leaders, and in particular with Moses, who is described in the Torah as being “very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the Earth (Num. 12:3).” One would think that such a humble person would be happy to accept God’s decision, and happy to have such an integral part in the ceremony. Instead, the Torah puts a Shalshelet on the word slaughtered to bring our attention to this internal struggle that otherwise would have gone completely unnoticed.


The Torah points Moses internal struggle out to us specifically to teach us that such feelings are perfectly okay to have. We are humans. We have feelings and instincts and desires. God understands that. Judaism (with the important exception of believing in false gods) is not a religion of thought-crimes. The Tenth Commandment tells us that we should not “covet” someone else’s spouse or possessions, but one is only liable for breaking the commandment if one takes illegal or unreasonable steps to acquire that which he or she covets. While the internal struggle symbolized by the Shalshelet is important, the end result is the word the Shalshelet is chanted on: Vayishchat – “and it was slaughtered (Lev. 8:23).” In the end, Moses did God’s will and played his part in the ceremony. It is perfectly okay to struggle with our desires and emotions. The important part is to make sure that in the end, we have acted appropriately.

Commentary for Vayikra

23 Mar

This Shabbat is one of the rare occasions where we read from three different Torah scrolls. The first six aliyot are read from the regularly scheduled weekly parshah, the seventh aliyah is the reading that would normally be the maftir reading for Shabbat that coincides with Rosh Chodesh, and the maftir reading is a special portion read on the Shabbat directly before or coinciding with Rosh Chodesh of the month of Nissan, during which Passover falls. All three readings also share a common subject matter: sacrifices.


The first people to offer sacrifices were Cain and Abel. They took some of their own stuff and said “To honor God, I am not going to use this anymore.” The next step in the development of sacrifices was made by Noah, who was the first person to build an altar. Not only does Noah designate a special location for making his sacrifice, but he also uses the altar to burn the sacrifice, ensuring that he can’t wake up the next day, change his mind, and go take his stuff back.   For many, many generations after that, that’s how sacrifices were conducted. Whenever you felt like doing it, you took some of your stuff and burned it on the altar, giving it up to honor God.


The next big step comes in this week’s special maftir. In this reading, God commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the Israelites to prepare, offer, cook, and eat the Paschal sacrifice. This marks the first time in the Torah where a large group of people offered an identical sacrifice for a common purpose. It is also the first time we see instructions on how a sacrifice should be offered and what should be done with the remaining parts of the animal afterwards (the blood smeared on the doorposts and the meat roasted and eaten with matzah and bitter herbs, while anything that isn’t eaten by morning must be burned). It is the first truly organized sacrifice.


The final development comes in this week’s parshah. We are given many detailed instructions for many different types of sacrifices from many different occasions. Do you just want to give God a gift to say thank you for how great life is? Chapters one and two of Leviticus have all of the instructions for that. Did you accidentally do something you weren’t supposed to? What if everyone else did the same thing wrong, too? What if you’re a public official? All of these cases are covered in chapter four. The seventh aliyah (read from the second Torah) comes from a section that gives similarly detailed rules pertaining to the offerings for all of the holidays.


Together, these sections are a true organized system of sacrifices, with proscribed details that we can compare and contrast and make inferences from to help us determine what to do in a given situation that might not be covered. But if you just start reading at the beginning of Leviticus, there are so many procedural details given for so many different sacrifices that it is almost impossible not to become overwhelmed.


Jewish ritual as a whole is very similar. Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, prayer and many more: there is a very wide range of topics all full of laws which each have their own individuals nuances. It is almost impossible to just dive into the deep end and not drown. Instead, the key is to start small and develop just like the sacrifices did. You can’t expect to make to the roof of a skyscraper by standing on the sidewalk and jumping. You have to start on the ground floor and climb your way up.

Commentary for Vayakhel-Pekudei

16 Mar

This week’s parshah starts off rather strangely: “Moses assembled the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and said to them: ‘These are the things that The Lord has commanded to do them: On six days creative work may be done, but the seventh day shall be for you a holy Sabbath of complete rest for The Lord; whoever does creative work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day’ (Ex. 35:1-3).” Why start off telling us that these are things that God has commanded us to do, and then only go on to list things that God is specifically commanding us not to do?


The Torah contains two types of mitzvot: positive mitzvot (thou shall) and negative mitzvot (thou shall not). The general principle used by the Rabbis (as derived in Yevamot 3b-6b) is that a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one. For example, a Priest is forbidden from becoming ritually impure by coming into contact with a corpse, but if the priest is the only person around, the mitzvah of burying a corpse overrides the prohibition against the priest coming into contact with it, and the priest is required to bury it. While this is the general principle, it is often not the case because of a very important qualifying principle: A positive commandment cannot override a negative commandment with an extremely harsh penalty, such as death, exile, or careit (being spiritually cut off from the Jewish People). This is why you can’t tie the tzitzit of your talit on Shabbat; because the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit does not override the negative commandment of not doing creative work on Shabbat, which, carries a penalty of death; or in a more absurd but more philosophically important case, why you can’t murder someone so that you can use his or her lulav on Sukkot.


While some exceptions to this qualifying rule are made (most notably that one can break Shabbat in the act of saving a life), they are very few and very far between. The reason for this is that Judaism correctly sees the argument that the ends justify the means as a very slippery moral slope. Moses begins our parshah by describing these negative mitzvot as if they were positive mitzvot to teach us that what we won’t do says just as much about us as what we will do.

Commentary for Ki Tisa

11 Mar

This week’s parshah contains God’s thirteen attributes of mercy, which we incorporate into our prayers on the Yom Kippur when we are praying for forgiveness. Oddly, this short passage comprising the second half of Exodus 34:6 and the first half of Exodus 34:7 (Lord, Lord, God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error; and Who cleanses), actually ends in the middle of a cantillation phrase. The “and Who cleanses” actually belongs to the first cantillation phrase of the second half of 34:7, which reads “and Who cleanses, but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”   Obviously that’s not the type of sentiment we want to invoke while praying for forgiveness, but if we are going to stop in the middle of the verse anyway, why not just stop at the natural break after “willful sin and error,” and leave the words “and Who cleanses” out all together?


Many modern readers are bothered by the idea of punishing a child for the acts of the parent. It reads to us like an act of vengeance upon innocents, like the old English corruption of blood laws which prevented children from not only inheriting the property of a parent convicted of treason, but prevented them from inheriting property from anyone they are related to through that parent, even if both the inheritor and the grantor are both completely innocent.


In reality, though, the phrase is not meant as a threat of vengeance, but rather as a warning to us. The way we act affects not only ourselves and those we act upon, but also all of those who see our actions. A child’s most basic and most important role models are the parents. Our children learn not only the good from us, but the bad as well. They grow up learning our bad habits, and then subsequently pass those bad habits on to their own children, and they to their children after that. God can forgive us for our sins and can cleanse us of our wrongdoing, but completely expunging the wrongdoing is up to us. If a child sees a parent act wrongly but does not see the parent repenting and asking for forgiveness, the child will not realize that the act was wrong. When we ask forgiveness from God we include not just the phrases designed to inspire God’s sense of mercy, but we also add the beginning of the next phrase as well, asking God to cleanse us but stopping there, living the phrase unfinished to remind ourselves that we need to ensure that our part does not remain unfinished as well.

Commentary for Purim

6 Mar

Purim is known as a holiday about distorting reality. Esther feigns politeness towards Haman so that he will not suspect it when she springs her trap. We “hide” our identities by dressing in costume. When Haman’s name is mentioned, we boo and hiss to drown his name out in order to fulfill the mitzvah to “completely erase memory of the Amalakites (of whom Heyman was a descendent) from under the heavens” in Deut. 25:19. Esther hides her religion from King Achashverosh, even going so far as to abandon her birth name (Hadasah) for the more Persian-sounding “Esther” (which sounds a lot like the Hebrew word “astir” which means “I will hide”). Despite being a major player in the events of the story, God’s name is not found anywhere in the megilah, neither are there even any references to God at all. The rabbis link these last two ideas together (Chulin 139b) by quoting Deut. 31:8 in which God says “I will keep My countenance hidden,” to show that God’s workings might not be easy to spot, but they are always still there.


Strangely, the quote by which the rabbis determine God’s means of saving the Jewish People is actually meant as a rebuke in the context of the verse and the section: “This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst… And yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods (Deut. 31: 16-18).”   This leads us to another oddity of the megilah: usually, when the Israelites are being faced with some sort of extreme danger, we (and they) are explicitly told that it is Divine punishment for some collection of sins. In Esther, just as there is no mention of God as cause of our salvation, there is also no mention of God’s wrath as the reason for the tragedy that almost befell us.


The megilah starts out with Achashverosh throwing an extravagant feast to which everyone is invited, so that he can show off his vast wealth and power. With so many guests, Achashverosh had an opportunity to show off all of his fancy stuff, and included in this were “vessels of many varying kinds (Esther 1:7).” The text specifically mentions the diverse assortment of vessels and the reader switches from the regular Esther cantillation to the mournful cantillation of Lamentations for that phrase to teach us that many of them were looted from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. While some have pointed to participating in a feast with defiled holy vessels from the temple as the Jews’ sin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instead posits that the sin was not partaking in the feast, but rather enjoying it. By enjoying the use of sacred items for Achashverosh’s own ego, the Jews are distorting their view of the world, rejecting Divine sovereignty in favor of that of the mortal Achashverosh.


In the end, the Jews are saved because of the leadership of two individuals. The first is Mordechai, who is the only one who refuses to bow to the king’s chief minister, Haman, because Jews should bow before the true King of the Universe. The second is Esther, who undertakes a daring plan to win Achashverosh’s favor and convince him to save the Jewish People.


As part of her plan, Esther must come before the king uninvited, which was punishable by death if the king so desired it. To avoid execution, Esther knows that she must look pleasing before the king and stroke his ego by prostrating herself before him. Rather than ensure that she looks her best before the king, though, Esther fasts for three days, making her look sickly to the point that not even royal robes can hide it. This is because Esther realizes that although she is physically prostrating herself before Achashverosh so that she can save her people, she is really prostrating herself before God because she knows that ultimately it is God, not Achashverosh, Haman, or anyone else who will be deciding the fate of the Jewish People.


Although the story of Purim is one about distorting reality, it is also one about accepting the truth. There are times when we might want to hide the truth, either from others or from ourselves, but in the end it is even more important that we ultimately accept the reality.

Commentary for Tetzaveh

3 Mar

This week’s parshah contains the instructions for the garb of the High Priest, including the breastplate. The High Priest’s breastplate was a single piece of woven material measuring one cubit by a half cubit, and then folded over in half to form a pocket. In that pocket was placed something referred to only as the “Urim and Tumim,” (literally translated as “lights” and “complete ones”) which Rashi identifies as a slip of material with God’s name written on it. On the front-facing side of this pocket were placed twelve golden settings in four rows of three which each held a gemstone that had the name of one of the twelve tribes inscribed on it, and whenever Jewish leaders needed guidance on matters of national importance, letters on the stones would light up, providing them with an answer.

Interestingly, these instructions are the first time that the Israelite tribes are actually referred to as “tribes.” The tribes were said to generally have similar temperaments and ideals to their namesakes, and the blessings given to them by Moses at the end of the Torah reflect concerns or personal weaknesses of the tribe’s namesake as much as those of their future descendents.

Just like Jacobs’ sons and the tribes they sired, each one of us has our strengths and our weaknesses, and they are all essential parts of making us who we are. When the Jewish People needed guidance, God would use components of the names of the tribes together to help solve their problems. So too must we today recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and how we can come together with each other and with God to provide solutions for our problems.