Archive | May, 2015

Commentary for Naso

29 May

In this week’s parshah, we learn the laws of the Nazir. A Nazir is one who makes a personal vow to abstain from shaving, cutting his or her hair, consumption of grapes or grape products, and becoming ritually impure through contact with a corpse, for a period of time specified in the vow. The Torah tells us that by taking a Nazirite vow, one is elevating his or her level of holiness, and that “the crown of his God is on his head (Num. 6:7),” and yet, strangely, when the period of his or her vow comes to an end, a Nazir is required to bring a “sin-offering” to God. This is extremely counter-intuitive. After all, how could it be wrong to do something that brings us closer to God and doesn’t hurt anyone else?

 

With the limited drinking options of the ancient world, the change between consuming grape products and not consuming grape products was a very drastic one. While the idea behind taking the vow and the end result of it was to bring yourself closer to God, it was still a very jarring change. There was no built-in period to wean off of grape products, but rather a Nazir was required to stop cold-turkey from the moment the vow was made, and when people start something out by jumping into the deep end, they don’t always manage to swim.

 

Any change of lifestyle is going to be difficult, whether it is something as basic as trying to eat healthier or something as extreme as converting to a new religion (it is for this reason that conversion to Judaism takes over a year). By taking on such a change so quickly and so strongly as to make a vow using God’s name, a Nazir is deliberately putting himself or herself in a very difficult, potentially unhealthy situation, and thus is required to bring a sin-offering, even if the experience has been a completely positive one. While God certainly wants us to do whatever we can to better our relationship with God, God would heavily prefer that we not put ourselves in danger to do so.

Commentary for Shavuot

22 May

There are many well-known traditions associated with the holiday of Shavuot. We eat dairy during Shavuot because the Israelites had not received the Torah and thus did not yet know which animals were permissible to eat, so they ate dairy to avoid accidentally eating a non-kosher animal. We stay up all night learning on the first night of the holiday to make reparations to God for the sin of the golden calf. On the first day of Shavuot, the day when the Jewish People officially entered into their covenant with God, we read the book of Ruth to learn about one individual’s journey into that covenant.

 

One of the lesser-known customs of Shavuot is to decorate the synagogue with flowers. The source for this custom is a midrash which says that on the day of the giving of the Torah, the desert around Mount Sinai bloomed with flowers. While this basic explanation is very nice, there is also a deeper symbolism behind this custom.

 

The sprouting of flowers in the barren desert symbolizes the Torah’s ability to bring a new life to areas of our lives that were previously lacking. Before receiving the Torah, eating was just eating. It was a thing we did to survive and to satiate our desire for food. With the Torah, though, the choices we make when we eat cease to be mundane and become a way through which we can serve God.   Burying the dead ceases to be icky, grimy work done simply to preserve the living by preventing the spread of disease, and instead becomes a beautiful declaration to the world that all of God’s creations deserve to be treated with dignity, even after the point that they cannot pay you back in kind. The giving of food to the poor transforms from merely being a nice thing to do into being a way in which we set an example for people and show them how God wants everyone to behave.

 

The Torah was not given at Sinai to remain there, high up on that mountain. It was given to our ancestors to take with them everywhere they went on their journey. And though the journeys may have changed throughout the centuries, it applies no differently for us.

Commentary for B’midbar

22 May

God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, and now, at the beginning of this week’s parshah, almost eleven months later, they are finally ready to head out towards the Promised Land. A major part of this journey is the transformation of the Israelites from merely a handful of tribes with common ancestors and a common belief into a nation with its own full-fledged religion. The image in this week’s parshah of the Israelites preparing to march out to return to the Promised Land, with each tribe in its assigned place surrounding the Tabernacle, which houses (among other things) the newly-given Torah, almost begs the question: “Why did God give the Torah in the middle of the desert instead of just waiting until they entered the Promised Land?” The Israelites have not yet been punished with forty years of wandering, so why not just skip the eleven-month hold-up at Sinai just go straight to the Land of Israel?

 

The Torah is the holy book that is the foundation of the Jewish religion, and the Land of Israel is the holy ancestral homeland of the Jewish People, so it would seem to make perfect sense to give the holy Torah in the Holy Land. Furthermore, the Torah contains many laws that apply only in the Land of Israel, so what is the point of giving all of these laws to the Israelites before they will have the opportunity to uphold them?

 

The reason that God gives the Israelites the Torah in the middle of the desert and makes them carry it with them on the long journey through the desert is exactly that: so that they will carry it with them. The Torah did not become irrelevant once the Israelites left Sinai, and it was not irrelevant up until they entered into the Promised Land. Throughout all of our expulsions and exiles from the Land of Israel, it has never ceased to be relevant, and will always remain so through the end of time. We do not start being Jewish the moment we walk in the synagogue door, and we don’t stop being Jewish when we walk out of it. Just as God had the Israelites carry the Torah with them on their journey through the desert, so too must we carry the Torah with us wherever our journeys take us, and let its morals and principles guide us on our path.

Commentary for Behar-Bechukotai

19 May

In the first of this week’s two parshahs, we learn the laws of the Shmitah year. Every seventh year we are required to let the fields in the Land of Israel lay fallow so that the land itself may have a Sabbath. This is a huge sacrifice for a heavily agrarian society to make. Not planting any crops for an entire year would almost certainly mean a year full of food shortages.

Usually when God commands people in the Bible to do something so counter-intuitive to their instincts, the following of that commandment is portrayed as a test of faith. When the ninety-nine year old Abraham circumcised himself, he was not only putting himself through immense pain and risking an infection, but his advanced age made the pain harder to bear and made the risk of infection both greater and more deadly. But Abraham, pious man that he was, had faith that God would help him bear the pain and protect him from infection, and that is exactly what happened.

In the case of the Shmitah year, though, the exact opposite is true. God preemptively addresses the concerns the Israelites were sure to have by saying “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year if we man neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years, so that when you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop (Lev. 25:20-22).” God is not just promising us ahead of time that God will ensure that the sixth year’s harvest will be enough to last us until the end of the eighth, but God is actually giving us the food in advance. This means that if you really wanted to, you could (extremely inadvisably) try to “cheat” God by eating the extra produce from the sixth year and also just go ahead and plant crops during the Shmitah year anyway.

This begs the question of why God would set up a situation that allows us to cheat the system in the first place? After all, if God wanted to feed us during the Shmitah year, God could just cause manna to fall from the sky every day like during the Israelites’ journey through the dessert.

By giving us three years’ worth of crops at once, God is teaching us that we have to manage our resources. God does God’s part by providing us with all of the food we will need, but after that it is up to us to ensure that we allocate it correctly. Just as we put our faith in God to provide us with the ability, guidance, and resources we need, so to does God put faith in us to use those gifts correctly.

Commentary for Emor

15 May

In this week’s parshah we receive the mitzvah of the Omer offering. The Omer offering was an offering whose principal component was barley from the new year’s crop, and prior to the sacrifice of the Omer offering, which was offered on the second day of Passover, consumption of barley from the new year’s crop was forbidden.

 

Most dates in the Torah are given as “on the Xth day of Yth month,” or sometimes, when pertaining to mitzvot for a certain holiday, as “on the Xth day” (of the festival). Rather than either of these methods, the Omer offering is commanded to be brought on “the day after the sabbath, (Lev. 23:11)” which in this case refers to the day of rest that is the first day of Passover. By referring to this date (the sixteenth day of the month of Nissan) in these specific words, the Torah connects the Omer offering to the specific events of the first day of Passover, rather than to the holiday or the calendar as a whole. Similarly, by referring to that day, the day when the Israelites left Egypt and finally became free after four hundred years of slavery, as a “sabbath,” a day when we free our minds from the material burdens we face the other six days of the week, the Torah specifically connects the Omer offering to our freedom, rather than to the many other important events of that day.

 

The definition of freedom is the absence of restrictions, and yet just as we begin to experience our freedom, God places a restriction upon us: “Bread or parched grain or fresh ears you shall not each until you have brought the offering of your God (Lev. 23:14).” This is to teach us that there is much more to freedom than merely the definition you find in the dictionary. Being free means that you have the responsibility to place certain restrictions upon yourself so that you don’t cause wanton harm to others in the free pursuit of your desires. Being free means having the ability to make your own decisions, and thus the responsibility to factor the rights and feelings of others into your decisions.

 

So sure, you might want to take that first crop of grain and bake some nice fresh bread out of it, but would it really be appropriate to use this grain for your own benefit before God, by whose will that very grain grows, has been thanked for the crop? In addition to asking, “do I want to do this?” we must also ask ourselves “should I do this?” Being free means that you have the responsibility to do what is right, and not to simply do whatever you want.

Commentary For Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

4 May

In the first half of this week’s double parshah, we learn about the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. As part of this service, the High Priest was commanded to take two handfuls of incense with him into the Holy of Holies and put them on a fire so that they created a cloud of smoke that would obscure the area immediately above the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Lev. 16:12-13). This is one of just two places in the Torah where someone is specifically commanded to take “handfuls” of something. The other place is in chapter nine of Exodus, where Moses and Aaron are commanded to each take handfuls of soot and for Moses to throw them into the air, where upon the soot starts to spread out all over the land of Egypt, initiating the plague of boils.

Fortunately, in the case of the Yom Kippur service, the handfuls are meant to help atone for our sins rather than to punish us for them. We learn this from the story of Korach (Numbers 16) who fomented a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. After God punishes the rebels by having the ground open up and swallow them and all of their belongings, the rest of the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for the deaths, saying, “you two have brought death upon The Lord’s people (Num. 17:6).” This angers God because it shows an inability to understand not just the sin of Korach and his followers, but to understand that the power to cause supernatural events- as well as the right to judge sinners- lies not with Moses or Aaron, but with God. This same mistake is what caused Pharaoh’s downfall, and just like with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God now sends a plague upon the Israelites.

To make expiation on the Israelites’ behalf, Aaron takes some of the incense used in the Tabernacle, puts it on himself, and stands among the people. Those who realized the error of their ways and repented survived the plague, while those who did not do so died, still believing that an external force- Moses and Aaron- was the cause of deaths, and failing to realize that they had brought their suffering upon themselves. They suffered the same fate as the Egyptians who even after five plagues still failed to realize their own culpability in their suffering. If the plagues would stop once the Israelites were freed and Pharaoh was not willing to free the Israelites, then the Egyptians should have taken steps to release the Israelites from servitude on their own.

All too often when things go wrong in our lives, we immediately thrust all of the blame onto external factors and refuse to consider that any part of the fault might lie with us ourselves. This assumption is almost always wrong. It is interesting to note that the first half of this week’s double parshah, Acharei Mot, which contains not only service of the High Priest for Yom Kippur, but also the Torah readings for both Yom Kippur morning and afternoon, is read not around the time of Yom Kippur, but rather when Yom Kippur is half a year away. While Yom Kippur only comes once a year, the message of the day- that we must examine our deeds and determine how we can better ourselves- is something we should keep in mind all year round.