Archive | February, 2016

Commentary for Ki Tisa

29 Feb

In this week’s parshah we read about the sin of the Golden Calf. After the giving of the Torah at Shavuot, Moses tells the Israelites that he is going to go up onto Mount Sinai and stay there for forty days. When the fortieth day comes and there has been no sign that Moses is going to return, the people start to get antsy and demand that Aaron make them some new gods instead of The Lord who they fear they have lost their link to now that Moses seems to have disappeared.

 

Most commentators place the blame for either the initial idea of asking for a “new god,” the initial idea of building an idol, or the initial heretical declaration that this idol will replace God (or some combination of the three) on the “mixed multitude” that left Egypt with the Israelites, whose faith was said to be either easily swayed or disingenuous, or who mistakenly believed that Moses and God were one and the same. No matter who came up with the original idea, though, Ex. 32:26-29 make clear that there were a noteworthy number of Israelites who had joined in the worship of the Golden Calf.

 

Moses does come down the mountain, though, and when he comes, he comes down carrying the two tablets with the Ten Commandments on them. These stone tablets are described as being “inscribed by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18),” a phrase which the commentators explain means that they had many miraculous properties, such as being chiseled the whole way through, but appeared to be written from right to left no matter which side you were looking at them from.

 

Among these magnificent features was the fact that they were light enough for the eighty-year-old Moses to carry down the mountain on his own, with very little effort. As Moses approached the Golden Calf and the sinning Israelites, though, the Tanchuma says that the holiness of the tablets retreated to heaven, and with them it’s divine qualities. As he got closer to the sinning nation, the tablets went from light enough that Moses could easily carry them in one hand to heavy enough that he needed to use both hands and a great effort, until he finally dumped them onto the ground and they shattered.

 

Moses, who had previously been ecstatic at the great gift of Torah God was giving himself and his people, now sees the people having abandoned God, and it is almost as if Moses’ very faith- whether it is his faith in the people or perhaps his faith in God to inspire the people- momentarily breaks. And in that moment the “Tablets of Testimony” of the covenant between God and Israel break as well.

 

The sinning Israelites were not even aware of Moses’ presence, but their actions greatly affected him nonetheless. This is because people are affected by their environment. The examples we set will affect the lives of all who see us. We must always remember that whether we intend them to or not, our actions, however small they might be, affect those around us”

Commentary for Tetzaveh

19 Feb

This week’s parshah is the second of two consecutive parshahs that deal almost exclusively with the instructions for the building and use of the Tabernacle. A rough division between the two can be made along the lines of what we are being instructed to construct. Last week’s parshah deals with the physical structures of the Tabernacle itself, the ark, the menorah, and all of their utensils, while this week’s parshah deals with the priestly vestments as well as some instructions on what to do when all of this stuff is done.

Despite the fact that it is dealing with exact instructions and precise measurements, last week’s parshah has an almost abstract feel to it. The concepts are simple, but the instructions are so precise that they seem to beg the age-old Jewish question of “why?” which the text does not answer. This week, while the instructions are similarly precise, the text does occasionally answer our unspoken question (such as in the case of the breastplate and the Ephod, whose purposes are explained in Ex. 28:29-30), helping the instructions to feel more grounded and understandable.

Another factor contributing to this week’s parshah feeling less abstract is the subject matter. We humans can easily understand the idea that the person with the fancy job needs fancy clothes. It is an idea we already understand from our human world. Obviously we can transfer this principle to help us understand why, for example, the implements used in service to God should be made of or coated in precious metals, but there is no similar concept that will help us understand why an omnipotent God wants us to make a fancy seven-branched candelabra.

That is not to say that there aren’t still parts of the priestly vestments that make us ask, “why does this have to be done this way?” Indeed, there is almost as much commentary on the priestly vestments as there is on the specifications of the Tabernacle, and there is certainly more on either of those two subjects than there is on the second part of this week’s parshah, which deals with the instructions for initiating the priests and the Tabernacle, despite the fact that the numbers and types of animals and items used in the initiation appear no less arbitrary than the materials, colors, and measurements of the Tabernacle or the priestly vestments. This is because when it comes to ritual, the symbolism is often obvious: we eat bitter herbs at the seder to remember how the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt. God rested on Shabbat, therefore we rest on Shabbat as well. When it comes to something like sacrifice, the symbolism is so clear that it really isn’t even “symbolism” anymore. We all understand the reasoning on an obvious, basic level: God wants us to show our gratefulness or atonement or devotion, so we sacrifice whatever fruits or animals God wants us to bring as a sacrifice. With ritual, we understand the basic concept on such a basic, almost physical level that we are completely willing to overlook the seeming arbitrariness of whatever the numbers happen to be.

When it comes to building things or designing special clothing, we are used to understanding why. We understand that a specific room must be certain dimensions because otherwise it wouldn’t be able to fit everything it needs to fit or that little bells will make your clothes fancier and more festive. But we don’t understand why the bells need to be shaped like pomegranates, or why a room would need a fancy candelabra that will be lit during the day when the desert sun is already providing enough light. Thus we are driven to ask questions, and until we can determine answers to those questions even the most basic, precise, detailed instructions will still feel abstract.

One of the commentators who does comment on the instructions for the initiation of the Tabernacle is VeChur LaZahav, who notes that the word “matzot” appears three times in Ex. 29:2. The first and third time it is spelled the usual way, but the second time it is spelled without the technically extraneous but usually present letter vav. VeChur LaZahav connects this to the seder, at which we use three matzot, the first and third of which stay whole while the middle is broken in half for the afikoman.

The seder is perhaps the very pinnacle of easy to understand ritual symbolism. We give a brief overview of the story, then explain why we are gathering to tell the story, then we tell the story (with added explanations), and then, one by one, we literally point to the important items on the table and ask “what is the significance of this?” before explaining it in as direct a manner as possible. This is because the purpose of the seder is to ensure the continuity of Jewish tradition not just through repeated motion but through teaching a thorough understanding of why the events being recounted are so important and why they need to be commemorated each year with special foods and a special ceremony, all done in a specific order.

The events recounted at the seder are not just the story of God redeeming the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, but also the story of the formation of Jewish peoplehood. This is the story of how a family of seventy grew into an entire nation. It is because of these experiences, culminating in God liberating us from bondage, that we emerge from Egypt as a people while the “mixed multitude” that came with us (Ex. 12:38) was merely that. The story we tell at the seder is the story Jewish peoplehood going from an abstract concept to a real solid fact. It is no longer just a common ancestry and experiences but a unique way of life that people engage in.

The initiation of the Tabernacle towards the end of this week’s parshah fulfills much the same function for Jewish religious practice that the Exodus did for Jewish peoplehood. It takes it from a set of ideas and principles into something that can be externally demonstrated. Once the Tabernacle is consecrated, we will have a central place that we can go to perform rituals so that we can show our gratefulness and devotion to God. Thus, by finishing with the instructions for the initiation of the Tabernacle and the daily duties the priests will perform in it, our parshah concludes the journey we began last week with the abstract command “They shall make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8)” and brought it into reality in the form of a place we can go to solidify our connection to God.

Commentary for Terumah

12 Feb

This week’s parshah begins with God telling Moses to collect materials from the Israelites which will be used for the building of the Tabernacle and its implements. Specifically, Moses is instructed to “speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion; from every person whose heart motivates him to you shall take My portion (Ex. 25:2).”

 

The Tabernacle was created to serve a communal purpose. It was a place where the sacrifices of all Jews would be accepted, and a place where the High Priest would pray on Yom Kippur for God to judge of all Israelites with mercy, male and female, young and old, from each and every tribe. For that reason, we would think that money and materials for its construction would be collected by tax. We learn in a few weeks that the Tabernacle’s upkeep was paid for this way, so it makes perfect sense that its construction should be paid for this way as well. After all, if everyone gets to use it, then everyone should have to help pay for it.

 

God’s instructions were very specific, though. When it comes to building the Tabernacle, “let”- don’t force- “them take for Me a portion”- they choose what it is they are giving- “from every person whose heart motivates him to you shall take My portion”- it doesn’t matter how big or small the donation or what the person giving it may have done in the past: anyone who wants to pitch in is allowed to do so.

 

The Tabernacle’s upkeep was maintained via taxes collected from everyone because maintaining something is easy. Its systems are already functioning and its institutions are already in place. All you have to do is write a quick check and pay your share. Building, on the other hand, requires dedication. It requires an investment of time and effort to determine what is needed and the best plan of action to fulfill those needs.

 

Upkeep is the maintaining of the status quo, but building is making something become more than it already is. Building is what makes a place into something special. A group of people who come together to build become a community, and through their grit and determination, they leave their mark on that place, each contributing to its specialness.

Building requires heart, and that is not something that can be demanded via levy. That is something that must come from within. “Every person whose heart motivates him” helps to build the Tabernacle, and all of those people made the Tabernacle a special place that helped serve the needs of all of the Israelites.

Commentary for Mishpatim

9 Feb

If last week’s parshah was about the big moment of the revelation at Sinai and the “big” laws that establish the important tenet of Judaism- both in terms of religious laws such as keeping Shabbat and not worshipping false gods, as well as moral laws that teach us to respect our fellow humans and their property, such as prohibitions against murder and theft- then this week’s parshah is about the opposite of that. While the major ideas are still present- particularly the respect for others and their property, it is a parshah mostly filled with legal minutiae. There is much we can learn from the scenarios the parshah describes, most people aren’t going to care how many times the value of the stolen livestock a thief must repay.

While most of the legal rulings in the parshah teach us to respect others in the negative- “if you do this particular mean thing to someone else, your punishment will be X”- there is one phrase so simple and plain that most people would assume there is nothing we can learn from it that actually teaches us a very important lesson to help us live a much happier life, especially in our dealings with other people.

Exodus 22:8 states that “the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he who judges find guilty shall pay (double to his fellow).” While this phrase might not seem profound- in fact, it seems pretty obvious- every word and phrase in the Torah is chosen for a reason. The Torah is a religious text, and thus it often deals in absolute truths and wants us to believe in the possibility of a utopia of justice where no guilty people will get away with their crimes and no innocents will be wrongfully convicted. As such, the Torah could easily have said “the case of both parties shall come before the judges; the guilty shall pay (double to his fellow),” removing the possibility of human error (both accidental and deliberate) allowed for by the phrase “he who the judges find (guilty).”

One extremely important thing to keep in mind about human error is that we are just as susceptible to it as others. Whether this is a result of being blinded by our desires, of incorrectly analyzing the situation, or simply not having all of the facts is irrelevant. What matters is that we accept the possibility that others might be correct, even if we don’t like the outcome. The reason that this is so important is because if we don’t accept the possibility that others might be right, we start to interpret anything that doesn’t go our way as the result of either the flaws of others or as deliberate acts of malice. We lose the respect for others that is a major tenet of Judaism, seeing everyone else as either an idiot or an enemy.

By using the phrase “he who judges find (guilty shall pay),” the Torah is telling us to have faith in the goodness of others. Not only to not see them as enemies, and not even to see them as neutral, but to believe that everyone else is a good person who is trying to do the right thing, just like you are (within reasonable limits, of course). This can apply both locally, in our everyday interactions with others, to very broadly, as in Rav Moshe Feinstein’s landmark ruling that milk advertised as milk from a kosher animal in countries with strict government regulations does not need a hechsher because we trust the government to enforce its laws to ensure that producers are selling what they are advertising, and we trust the individual inspectors to be honest and diligent, just as we would with anyone giving out kosher certifications. By having faith in others we not only make our own lives happier and less stressful, but also show them the respect due to them as God’s creations.

Commentary for Yitro

5 Feb

In this week’s parshah, Moses gets a visit from his father, Jethro. While Jethro does bring Moses’ wife and sons, who had been staying in Midian while Moses was off liberating the Israelites, the Torah makes it pretty clear based on Ex. 18:1 and 2 that the reason this visit takes place is not so that the family can be reunited, but rather because Jethro had heard of all of the miracles and wonders God had performed for Moses and the Israelites during their dealings with Pharaoh, and that being able to reunite was more of an added bonus.

While 18:1 tells us that Jethro had heard of “all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt,” when 18:8 describes Moses recounting the miraculous events to Jethro, the Torah specifically mentions “everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all of the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them.” The “hardships” in question are said to refer to the various issues the Israelites have with the availability of food and water as well as the attack by the Amalekites- all of which are dealt with either directly by God or with God’s help- because if the “hardships” did not refer to these events, then 18:8 would merely be Moses telling Jethro things that Jethro already knows. Strangely, even after being given this new information about additional wonderful things God has done for the Israelites, Jethro’s response (given in 18:9-11) is to praise God, but focusing only on the events that occur in Egypt; the stuff he already knew about.

Interestingly, the issue of praising God for one miraculous event more than others is at the heart of a debate surrounding the other major component of this week’s parshah: the revelation at Sinai and the reading of the Ten Commandments. One school of thought says that we should stand while the Ten Commandments are read to reflect the great importance of this moment in Jewish history, while the other argues that if the entire Torah is Divine, then all parts of it are equally important and it would be wrong to show greater respect to one part over another.   The conversation between Moses and Jethro in the beginning of the parshah seems to give voice to this very debate, with Moses taking the position that all parts of the Torah are equal and Jethro taking the position that certain events are more important than others.

The only other part of the Torah about which such a debate exists is the Song of the Sea, read last week, which recounts God’s defeat of the Egyptian army and envisions the other nations of the world hearing the news and having almost exactly the same reaction that Jethro has here: acknowledgement of God’s supremacy. Some commentators see Jethro’s praise of God (and particularly 18:11’s “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all of the gods”) as a conversion to Judaism, and Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon cites the parting of the Red Sea as the specific event that leads to Jethro’s decision to convert. When viewed through this lens, Jethro’s words do not show a disregard for the new information he was given, but rather show his desire to praise God for an event that he found to be especially meaningful.

While the debate over standing during the Ten Commandments and showing more respect to one part of the Torah than to others does fit nicely, a more literal interpretation of the disagreement as applied through Moses and Jethro would be “is it okay to praise God more for one miracle than for others?” We have all been given many gifts from God: Some people are good at sports while others can sing or play music while still others have a talent for comedy or for mathematics or problem-solving, and we are often very conscious of these gifts, but really, every moment of our life is a miraculous gift from God. Those little everyday bits of joy or inspiration, or even just the fact that physics of the universe works the way it does that allows it to sustain life. There is even a brachah to say after going to the bathroom that thanks God for designing the human body in such a way that it is able to do these things because “if even one of them ruptures or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You, even for a short time.” Jethro teaches us that there is nothing wrong with feeling more connected to God through our ability to make and appreciate music than through the fact that we have such a well-crafted respiratory system or the fact that we can see a rainbow because there are some of us out there for whom neither rainbows nor respiratory systems will make us feel connected to God in the way that a beautiful tune will. Moses teaches us that although we might not connect with them the same way, we shouldn’t neglect the amazing miracles that these other things are. Keeping both of these lessons in mind, we can fully appreciate all of the wonderful things that God does for us.