Archive | March, 2016

Commentary for Purim

25 Mar

The story of Purim has four major characters. There is Haman: a devious villain bent on genocide. Then we have Mordechai and Ester: the brave hero and heroine of our story, who risk their lives to stand up for and save their people. Finally, we have Achashverosh: King of all one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of Persia, who generally appears to be a complete and total doofus, unfit to be king of his own block, much less the most powerful empire on the planet.

As a leader, Achashverosh is, to put it mildly, irresponsible. Examining the scene where Haman proposes to Achashverosh that the Jews should be killed (Ester 3:8-11), we get a dialogue that can be summed up as follows: Haman says “There are these people who live in your kingdom who never follow your rules and who have different customs than everyone else. I will pay you ten thousand pieces of silver if you let me kill them all for you.” And Achasherverosh simply responds “okay.”

Setting aside the obvious moral abhorrence of genocide, a responsible leader would have at least done some research to try to determine if anything Haman was saying was true, and whether or not it was financially and politically worthwhile to eradicate the Jews. Are the Jews really disobeying the laws of the kingdom at every turn? Would eradicating the Jews in all of Persia wind up costing the royal treasury more money in lost tax revenues than Haman was offering to pay? Does eradicating the Jews set a bad precedent that might cause other minority groups to rebel, fearing for their own safety? Achashverosh considers none of this. He gives Haman the green light without a moment’s thought. Later, when he does decide to reverse the decision, he does not do so because he has found evidence that Haman’s statements are untrue (in fact, in chapter four, when he is presented with evidence that Mordechai the Jew saved him from an assassination attempt, Achashverosh orders that Mordechai be honored as a hero of the state, but does nothing to repeal the decree of legalized genocide which would leave this same hero of the state dead). Nor does he overturn the decree because it would not be politically or financially beneficial to the kingdom. He doesn’t even overturn the decree because he had a moral epiphany and came to the conclusion that genocide is wrong. He repeals the decree against the entire Jewish People simply because he finds out that his wife is a Jew, and in his mind, once this affects him, then it becomes a problem.

It’s safe to say that responsibility, either moral or financial, is not Achashverosh’s strong suit. In fact, determining what exactly is Achashverosh’s strong suit is something of a challenge. He is unique among Biblical characters in that he is the only one who is portrayed almost completely as a fool. Other characters have acted mistakenly or foolishly (such as those who rebel against God), but no one else is portrayed as being little more than a drunken, bumbling idiot.

His drunkenness- or at least his love of drinking and partying- is the trait most identified with him. The Megilah starts by describing two, back-to-back elaborate parties he held, lasting a combined total of one hundred and eighty-seven days. It seems that planning elaborate parties was the only thing he was good at.

While this section is necessary from a narrative perspective (telling the tale of the old queen’s expulsion, thus setting the stage for Ester’s ascent), the extreme amount of detail (what dishes were used, what color were the decorations, who sat where, etc.) that the text goes into about the party seems completely unnecessary. The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that all of these little details were, in fact, necessary, because they teach us to the following lesson which we can learn from Achashverosh’s example: “When a person is involved in an endeavor, his achievements must be equal to his abilities.” Everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Your performance should be measured not against how well others did, but by how much of your potential you fulfilled.

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Commentary for Vayikra

21 Mar

In this week’s parshah we start to learn the laws of the various sacrifices. For most of the sacrifices, the rules covered are similar. We learn who brings the sacrifice, what animals can be sacrificed for each particular sacrifice, what parts of the animal are burned on the altar, who- if anyone- is allowed to eat its meat, what must be done with any leftovers, etc. etc.

 

One peculiar variation to this is found in the laws of the minchah offering. The minchah offering is a voluntary offering, and in fact is the first such offering officially detailed in the Torah. It consisted of flour mixed with oil and sometimes with frankincense, part of which was burned on the altar and part was given to the priests. If it is offered as a baked product rather than just a pan of flour, we are told that it must not be leavened. This is expounded upon in 2:11 where rather than being told how an offering should be prepared, we are told how it must not be prepared: “Any meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall not be prepared leavened, for you shall not cause to go up in smoke any leavening or any honey from it as a burnt offering to the Lord.”

 

There is a teaching from the Chassidic dynasty of Kotzk that “ultra-sweet honey and ultra-sour leaven are opposite extremes; God does not like extremes.” The minchah offering was given not only voluntarily, but with no strings attached. Other voluntary offerings were still voluntary, but had a certain desired outcome on the part of the giver (such as the next offering discussed, the shelamim offering, which was given in times of nervousness in the hope of the giver receiving some sort of reassurance from God that everything would be okay in the end), but the minchah offering was brought whenever the bringer desired and for whatever reason he, she, or they wanted. Human nature being what it is, this probably resulted in most minchah offerings falling into one of two possible categories: thanks to God because things are going well, or a plea to God because things aren’t going well and the bringer wants that to change.

 

God, of course, understands human nature. The prohibition against leaven and honey in the minchah offering is more than just a culinary choice but also a reminder from God that our actions should not be informed by a world viewed through tinted glasses. Whether those glasses are tinted with rose or with darkness, they represent a distortion of the reality that God has created for us.   Things are not completely perfect, but neither are they completely terrible. There are always things that can improve and always things that could be worse than they are right now.   To come to God bearing flour, a most basic and worldly dietary staple, while also coming to God with a mind closed to the reality of that world is to come to God offering a vain prayer; one based on a premise that does not exist. It is equally a rejection of God to thank God for something that doesn’t exist as it is to request that God change something that doesn’t exist. God does not want us to come bearing honey or leavening, but to come bearing an open mind that has spent time honestly considering the world God has made for us before coming to G-d to share our thoughts on it.

Commentary for Pekuei

15 Mar

In this week’s parshah, the Israelites finally finish building the Tabernacle. With this important task now completed, they are ready to set out on their journey to the Promised Land, so the last few verses of the parshah explain to us how they knew when to head out. “When the cloud was raised up from upon the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeys. If the cloud did not rise up, they would not embark, until the day it rose up. For the cloud of the Lord would be on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be on it at night, before the eyes of all of the House of Israel throughout their journeys (Ex. 40:36-38).”

 

This information leads us to an interesting question: If God can make these clearly supernatural occurrences to both guide the Israelites and remind them of God’s presence among them, then why instruct them to build the Tabernacle in the first place? Why not just build some altars and do the required daily sacrifices in front of this thick and impossibly low-hanging cloud or in front of the big floating fire in the sky? Surely such clearly supernatural phenomena would do a better job of focusing the people on our omnipotent God than a bunch of man-made tents and implements would.

In this week’s parshah we are told that it is on the first day of the first month of the second year that that the Tabernacle is put together by Moses and then Aaron and his sons begin their priestly duty as God had instructed. This seems to be Moses ignoring the instructions he was given by God in Exodus 29 in which God says that Aaron and his sons are to be anointed over a seven-day period in a ceremony which includes the use of the Tabernacle for sacrifices. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Gur resolves this issue by explaining that the Torah only mentions Moses raising the Tabernacle when it is erected for permanent use. For the seven-day period before that, though, Moses had been setting the Tabernacle up every morning and then breaking it down when he was done with that day’s inauguration ceremony.

 

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai also connects these seven times that Moses erects and then breaks down the Tabernacle to the seven places that would serve the Israelites as sanctuaries for the next thirteen-hundred years: The Tabernacle itself that was used in the desert, Gilgal, Shiloh, Nov, Givon, and the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

 

Midrash Rabbah takes a slightly different approach, first citing Song of Songs 5:1 and Genesis 3:8 to show that God’s Divine Presence (signified by the cloud and the fire) initially resided on Earth, but then, starting from the sin in the Garden of Eden, it retreated up to heaven, and would retreat up to a higher level of heaven following six other instances of large-scale human sin, but was also brought back down closer to earth by seven different righteous people, the final one of whom was Moses, as is evidenced by the cloud and the fire upon the Tabernacle.

 

Both of these explanations lead us to the same basic idea: That which can be destroyed by human hands can also be rebuilt by human hands. If the actions of others have made God seem absent in the world, we can bring God back into the world through our actions. If the institutions through which we connect to God appear desolate and barren, we, through our hard work, can revive them.

 

God could have simply appeared to the Israelites as cloud or fire, but that would have led to a similar situation as happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or with the Israelites themselves when they thought Moses was gone on Mount Sinai for too long. The moment God (or God’s appointed representative) was out of sight, the people would panic and turn away from God. By having them build the Tabernacle, God teaches the Israelites that a connection with God is not something that simply falls into your lap. It is something that it takes time and effort to cultivate, as symbolized by the manmade Tabernacle surrounded by God’s Divine Presence in form of the cloud and fire. Thus only once they had put in the prerequisite time and effort did the Israelites merit a visual manifestation of God’s Divine Presence.

Commentary for Vayakhel

7 Mar

The large majority of this week’s parshah deals with the construction of the Tabernacle. Most of the past few weeks have been God giving Moses instructions and specifications about the various items to be constructed and Moses relaying that information to the Israelites. This week and next week, we read of the actual construction, with the Israelites following God’s specifications. To show that God’s specifications were followed exactly, much of this week’s parshah is a phrase for phrase repetition of the pertinent parts of the last few weeks, but with the future tense “they will build” changed to the past tense “they built” as the Israelites have now actually constructed the Tabernacle.

 

After God has finished giving the Israelites the instructions, the Israelites are commanded to observe Shabbat, and from the introductory phrasing of the this command “however, you must observe My Shabbats (Ex. 31:13)” and its placement right after the instructions for building the Tabernacle, we derive that the tasks required for building the Tabernacle are prohibited on Shabbat.

 

In this week’s parshah the Israelites are reminded to observe Shabbat as well, but unlike last week, this reminder comes at the very beginning of the parshah, before construction on the Tabernacle begins. Rashi explains that this reminder is given because, in their enthusiasm to serve God by building the holy Tabernacle and its holy implements, the Israelites might assume that the building of such important and holy things overrides the prohibitions of Shabbat, and thus they are given a reminder of the importance of Shabbat right before the construction begins.

 

The impulse that Moses is trying to combat in this week’s parshah is not one that humans have grown out of. Often, in our zeal to do something right, we often perform a wrong as well. Sometimes we rush to action without thinking things through, or sometimes we make incorrect assumptions about the importance of our project as compared to other factors and decide that our project is important enough to bend the rules just this once. In these moments, we should recall Moses’ reminder to the Israelites and carefully consider all of the factors before moving to action.