Archive | April, 2015

Commentary for Tazria-Metzora

24 Apr

In both parts of this week’s double parshah we learn about the skin disease Tzara’at. Tzara’at is seen in Rabbinic literature as being a spiritual punishment more so than a naturally occurring disease. The sin which Tzara’at is almost always identified with is Lashon Hara (literally translated as the “evil tongue” but often taken to mean gossip and/or slander) due to the events of Numbers 12, where Miriam contracts the disease after engaging in Lashon Hara regarding Moses. Reish Lakish makes a further connection, noting that the term for someone who has contracted Tzara’at, a “metzora,” can be seen as an abbreviation for “motzi shem ra” (“one who brings a bad name [to someone/something]) (Arachin 15b).


The process by which one is declared cured of Tzara’at is rather complicated, involving temporary exile from the camp, the shaving of body hair, the washing or burning of affected objects, and finally, once a priest has declared the physical symptoms gone, a strange ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest gets a mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson dye. The priest then takes two healthy kosher birds and sacrifices one of them. Then the priest mixes the blood of the sacrificed bird together with the crimson dye, the hyssop, and the cedar, and dips the second bird in the mixture. The priest then sprinkles the mixture over the head of the metzora and then sets the second bird, covered in the mixture, free. Then the metzora must again shave off all of his/her hair, both head and body, wash his/her clothes, bathe, and then he/she is considered to be cured.


The reason for the shaving was a practical one: it was required before ritual bathing so that one could reenter God’s service. The rest of the ceremony, though, seems to be rather random. What do birds have to do with anything, and what is the purpose of the dipping, or setting one of the birds free?


The Gemara in Arachin 15b tells us of a saying: “gossip kills three people: the one who says it, the one who receives it, and the one about whom it is said.” Once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. There is no way to know who has heard it and who has repeated it. It spreads, insidious an untraceable, throughout the world, and just like the bird that has been set free cannot be caught again, there is no way to undo the harm that the gossip has caused. The words we speak have an almost unlimited amount of power, and it is our responsibility to use God’s gift of language responsibly.


Commentary for Shemini

21 Apr

In this week’s parshah we read of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who “offered before The Lord alien fire which had not been enjoined upon them (Lev. 10:1).” Over the generations, many commentators have used context clues to theorize exactly what Nadav and Avihu did wrong and what was “alien” about the fire they used, but based on the text, this mysterious bringing of “alien fire which had not been enjoined upon them” is the closest we get to an answer of what they did that caused God to take their lives. Moses’ comment to Aaron that “this is what God meant when God said ‘through those near to Me I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people’ (Lev. 10:3)” is equally unhelpful in providing us a clear answer, and in fact complicates matters because for some commentators it serves as evidence that Nadav and Avihu did nothing wrong, but rather had their souls consumed by heavenly fire because they were so close to God.


The Torah records Aaron’s response to all of this as “Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3).” This is especially strange as the Torah rarely calls attention to someone’s lack of a response. Usually the inclusion of an extra detail in the Torah helps us to answer our questions, but in this case it only serves to open up more of them. Why was Aaron silent? Did he accept his sons’ deaths without protest? Was he too depressed to speak? Too angry? Too shocked at either the events or at Moses’ interpretation of them to respond? If Moses’ words were meant- as some commentators imply- to indicate to Aaron that his sons had died because they had become so close to God, was Aaron’s silence a sign that this explanation satisfied him? We just don’t know, and it’s possible that we never will figure it out.


And that can be frustrating. We often see religion as a quest for truth. It is a guide to how we are supposed to live our lives, and thus it needs to be able to answer all of our questions or else we can’t use it to inform our actions and behave according to God’s will. As a result, when we are faced with events for which we can find no satisfactory theological answer, we tend to get frustrated and often just give up.


One famous Talmudic midrash (Menachot 29b) states that when Moses reached the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, God was putting the crowns on the letters. Moses asked God what was so important about these little artistic details that they needed to be finished before God could give the Israelites the Torah. God told Moses that there would come a man named Akiva, son of Joseph (Rabbi Akiva) who would be able to explain what each and every little line of the crowns meant and would be able to derive many teachings and laws from them. Moses asked if he could meet this Akiva, so God transported Moses to the future and Moses sat in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s class and listened to him speak about the crowns. Akiva’s teachings all flew completely over Moses’ head and he soon became despondent. Then one of Rabbi Akiva’s students asked him how he reached a certain conclusion in his lesson, and Rabbi Akiva responded “it is from a law learned by Moses at Sinai.”


Hearing that his own work would inspire and help scholars in future generations like Rabbi Akiva to gain an even deeper understand of the Torah, Moses cheered up significantly. He then asked God to show him what would become of Rabbi Akiva, so God showed Moses Rabbi Akiva’s body, slaughtered by the Romans. Moses is appalled at this and demands to know how such a learned and righteous person could meet such a terrible and unjust end, to which God replies “Silence! This is how it was conceived of from the beginning.” Not only does Moses not receive a satisfactory answer, but God’s response makes it quite clear that Moses should drop the subject for now.

After seeing this great injustice and not getting a satisfying answer as to why something like this could be allowed to occur, Moses easily could have given up on the whole thing, but he doesn’t. Moses works diligently and derives the very teachings upon which Rabbi Akiva and many others based their own teachings, even knowing what the end result for Rabbi Akiva would be. He kept up his learning not because Rabbi Akiva’s fate no longer bothered him, but so that he could find something that would help him understand it better.   Just with the case of the death of Aaron’s sons, we will not always have all of the answers, and the answers we find will not always come easily, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up the search because if we give up the search, we guarantee that we will never find them.

Commentary for First Days of Passover

7 Apr

In this week’s maftir we read about the special holiday sacrifice for Passover. After first commanding the Israelites to bring the festival offering for Passover, then listing exactly what is to be part of that offering, the Torah in Numbers 28:16 tells us that this is all to be “aside from the daily elevation offering, its grain offering and its libations.” The rabbis naturally wonder why this phrase was necessary at all. Shouldn’t it be obvious that the daily offering is brought every day?


The rabbis argue that one might say “because today is a special day with a special offering, that special offering should take the place of the daily offering,” and thus this phrase teaches us that this is not the case. Even if there is another offering going on as well, the daily offering is always brought as well. The Mishnah in Zevachim 10:1 uses this to introduce the idea commonly known in Halachic thought as “Tadir v’she’ayno tadir; tadir kodem– (if you have two mitzvot that both need to be performed at the same time,) if one is common and the other isn’t (as) common, the common one goes first.” For example, if Rosh Chodesh for the month of Tevet (which always falls during Chanukah), falls on Shabbat, then we first do the Torah reading for Shabbat, then the Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh, and then the Torah reading for Chanukah because there are many Shabboses during the year, twelve Rosh Chodeshes, and only one Chanukah.


Based on the rabbis reasoning, the principle of Tadir v’she’ayno tadir; tadir kodem seems to be intended to remind us not to forget the small, common things in our lives. Strangely it is Passover, the very holiday whose sacrifice this principle is derived from, which seems to be the one that most shifts our attention from the little things to the big things. Our diet undergoes a drastic change that makes it completely impossible for us to forget that it is Passover, and the seder is filled with songs, stories, foods that we only sing, tell, and eat during the seder.

Perhaps the most famous of these Passover songs is Dayeinu, a long list of fifteen wonderful and in some cases miraculous “favors” that God did for our ancestors during their exodus from Egypt and their journey into the Promised Land that we thank God for by saying that if God had just done one of these things, it would have been enough for us.


Dayeinu is often seen is the climax of the retelling of the story of the exodus, but it also serves another important function. The fifteen grandiose favors we thank God for late at night during our special twice-a-year gathering call us back to the way we started our day- the way we start every day: by saying the fifteen blessings of Birchot Hashachar. In these blessings, which we are said every single morning, we thank God for the simplest of things: the clothes on our backs, bodies that work, for even creating us at all and for making us who we are. By singing dayeinu and giving thanks to God for the big things, we are also reminding ourselves that God deserves thanks for the small things, without which we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the great gifts that God has given us.