Archive | April, 2016

Commentary for Passover

22 Apr

The Passover seder is a very precise and structured ceremony.   The word “seder” literally means “order,” and in a very precise order, we follow its steps as we follow the journey of our ancestors from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.   The chronological pattern followed by the seder is a relatively simple one: Everything from Kiddush through the paragraph after the “four sons” section combines the present with the past, serving to set up our trek through history by establishing and combining its religious, cultural, and educational importance. From there we start a roughly chronological journey of Passover-related customs and material through Jewish history from Abraham through Second Temple times, complete with Talmudic commentary, explanations, and the eating of symbolic foods. This is then followed by a festive meal, just like the large meal our ancestors would to ensure that they were full because the paschal sacrifice- symbolized in our meal by the afikoman, could only been eaten when one was fully sated. After reciting the Grace After Meals, we then turn our attention to the future, hoping to have our seder “next year in Jerusalem the [re-]built.”

There are just two anomalies in this sequence. One of them is a few lines in the middle of the blessing at the end of the recitation of the story of the Exodus, which shares the same sentiments as the end of the seder, hoping that we will once again be able to bring a proper paschal offering in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. The other is the “Ha Lachma Anya” paragraph, located during the “past and present” section of the seder, and is officially considered the beginning of the retelling of the Passover story. It reads as follows:

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry come in and eat from it; all who are in distress come in and celebrate Passover. This year we are here, but next year we hope to be in the land of Israel. This year we are servants but next year we shall be free.”

Ha Lachma Anya is notable not only because it combines the part, present, and future parts of our journey, but also for the custom that arises from the line, “All who are hungry come in and eat from it; all who are in distress come in and celebrate Passover.”

The front door is opened before this paragraph is recited (and according to some customs the paragraph is read while standing in the doorway or on the street) so that any needy people within earshot will hear it and come in to join the seder. Ha Lachma Anya is one of two times during the seder that we open the front door. The other time is right after the Grace After Meals, when we open the door for Elijah the Prophet (whose cup is also filled at this point in the seder), marking the transition from focus on the past to focus on the future.

These are the only two times the door is opened during the seder. Once we have invited the poor in, we close the door and do not open it again until the meal is completed. Looking at the text of Ha Lachma Anya it would be easy to conclude that we are supposed to invite the poor in, give them some of the “bread of affliction” that we just mentioned in the previous line and send them on their way, having not only given them something to eat but also allowed them to fulfill an important mitzvah of Passover. Instead, we invite the needy in and close the door behind them. We sit them at our table and we share our entire meal with them, and do not do anything to even suggest that they should leave until the meal is over.

When we open the door to let the needy out after we have shared our meal with them, that is the moment when we are opening the door to let Elijah in. Elijah is the harbinger of the Messiah, and in order to merit his coming- to merit the future that we sing about at the end of the seder, that we hope for in Ha Lachma Anya, and that we ask God to bring us in the blessing at the completion of the story of the exodus- we must care for the needy in our society the way that God cared for us during the exodus and throughout the generations.

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Commentary for Metzora

15 Apr

This week’s parshah deals with the affliction of tzara’at. Tzara’at is not a normal disease, but rather one that contains both physical and spiritual components. One is only officially declared to have Tzara’at when the physical component has been confirmed by an expert and then a declaration of ritual impurity is made by an investigating priest. Similarly, one of is only considered to be cured of the affliction once all physical symptoms have disappeared and has brought the required materials to a priest to perform the ritual for spiritual reparation and repurification. Treatment for tzara’at involved being exiled from the community until a check by a priest confirmed that the physical symptoms were no longer present, at which point the reparation ceremony would be performed to purify the afflicted person.

Tzara’at is also abnormal in that in can infect not just people but also houses, with physical symptoms appearing on the house just like they would on a person. In extreme cases, this can lead to some of the stones of the house needing to be replaced. If the diseases breaks out even after this happens, the entire house needs to be destroyed and rebuilt.

Strangely, God tells Moses that outbreaks of tzara’at on houses will only start after the Israelites have entered the Promised Land (Lev. 14:34). Rashi cites a midrash saying that this would ultimately lead to good news for those whose houses were afflicted to the point that they had to be destroyed and rebuilt because the Amorites would hide gold in the walls of their houses so that anyone who might take their houses would not be able to benefit from their treasures as well. If an Israelite lived in a house that used to belong to an Amorite and the house was struck with such severe tzara’at that it had to be torn down, the Israelite would discover the gold (which would help cover the costs of rebuilding the house).

Rashi’s comments seems quite startling as the fact that tzara’at has a spiritual component to it has always caused commentators to assume its presence must be connected to a sin of some kind, often considered to be an excess of pride. It was generally assumed that the affliction would disappear once, having been punished by removal from the community to create an environment that would force him or her to contemplate his or her actions, the sinner had identified his or her wrongdoing and was ready to repent, the lesson learned being symbolized by the combination of ezov (a very small plant) with cedar wood in the mixture for the reparation and purification ceremony, showing that one who had thought himself or herself so high has recognized how low he or she has really been. Thus, Rashi’s assertion that one being punished for a most severe form of this sin and having ignored the various spiritual warnings in the form of already having had to replace some stones in his or her house would, in the end, be monetarily rewarded for these misdeeds.

Chabad tradition holds that the mixture of ezov and cedar is not for the afflicted to focus on the idea that “I thought I was so high but now I realize I am so low,” but rather to teach that true humility is the ability to “be humble even as one stands straight and tall.” Exiling a person with tzara’at from the community is meant to cause an introspective investigation during which the person will discover what he or she has been doing wrong, but on the course of that journey, this will also cause the person to determine what he or she has been doing right. To discover the gold hidden in the afflicted house, as it were. Thus the person will not come out of the tzara’at experience feeling depressed and worthless, but will reenter the community equipped with the means to help rebuild him or herself.

Commentary for Tazria

15 Apr

This week’s parshah deals mainly with the steps to be taken to purify someone of various types of ritual impurities. In fact, the parshah is so focused on this subject that only one single verse in the entire parshah deals with a different subject. Right after the parshah begins to discuss the steps that a woman must take purify herself after childbirth, we hit Leviticus 12:3, which is almost seems like an offhand reminder to circumcise a male child on the eighth day after birth. A bris is obviously a very important thing and not the sort of thing people generally forget about, but a birth is a major event as well, and one that creates many, many deviations from what had previously been the standard routine for the family. God understands that we humans do occasionally forget things, and so we are provided with a quick reminder to not forget about the bris here in this section of laws which someone looking up laws pertaining to what actions to take after childbirth would be likely to consult.

Interestingly, the only person in the Torah to forget to circumcise a child is Moses, who forgets to circumcise his younger son Eliezer because he is busy with his preparations to return to Egypt. This week’s maftir is a special maftir that is always read on the Shabbat immediately proceeding or coinciding with the beginning of the month of Nissan, in which Passover- the result of Moses’ return to Egypt- falls. It is read on this occasion because it contains God’s instructions to the Israelites on how to prepare themselves for the impending exodus from Egypt and for the upcoming holiday of Passover that will be celebrated to commemorate it, and its rereading at this point serves to remind us that Passover is almost here. It might seem farfetched that someone could forget about something like Passover or a bris, but if Moses can do it then the rest of us can, too.

Commentary for Shemini

4 Apr

This week’s parshah contains one of the most difficult sections in the Torah to comprehend: two of Aaron’s sons go into the holy of holies in an attempt to worship God… and God smites them for it.

 

Over the years, commentators have used textual and contextual clues to determine what their mistake that cost them their lives may have been. The text states that they brought an “alien fire (Lev. 10:1)” which God had not commanded them to bring, but whether this fire is literal or a metaphor for some unworthy motivation is not clear. Some commentators have speculated that they were drunk, based on the fact that after these deaths, Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons not to be intoxicated when they enter the Tent of Meeting, lest they, too, perish (10:9).   Other commentators have speculated that they were egotistical or possibly lacked faith in God. Still others have said that they disrespected either Moses, Aaron, or both, either verbally or by presuming to perform their duties in their stead.

 

As hard as it is to accept, we may never know exactly what they did wrong. Whatever the issue was, this difficult story reminds us that we don’t always have the answers in life, and sometimes we just have to guess at what our mistake was and take precautions to ensure that we don’t repeat it.

Commentary For Tzav

1 Apr

This week’s parshah, which mostly deals with sacrifices, begins by discussing the basic daily maintenance of the altar. The instructions given are that “the priest shall don his linen tunic and he shall don linen breeches on his flesh; he shall separate the ash of what was consumed of the ascent offering on the altar and place it next to the altar (Lev. 6:3).” The second half of the verse seems very simple to understand: Before you can use the altar again, you need to clean off the ashes of the things that were burnt on it overnight. The first part of the verse, however, seems much more complicated. Obviously the priest needs to dress in the official uniform, but why repeat the details of the uniform here when they were already outlined in the instructions to make them back in Ex. 28:40-43?

 

Rashi points out that the word use for “his tunic”- “mido” can also mean “his measure,” and teaches us that each priest’s garments should be fitted specifically for him. The Gemarah teaches on Yoma 23b that the phrase “and he shall don linen breeches on his flesh” means that the priest should have nothing between his linen breeches and his flesh. Just as the Torah included these details to give extra insight into how a priest should come before God to prepare the altar for the day’s sacrifices, we can use these insights to better prepare ourselves for when we come before God in our contemporary replacement for sacrifice: prayer.

 

We must all come before God in “clothes” of our own measure, and with no barriers between us and our “clothes.” When we approach God to pray, we must do so with honesty, about who we are, where we stand, and what we have done, and what we truly want. God will know if we are lying or trying to hide something, so to come before God trying to do so not only disrespects God but also deceives ourselves. If we are attempting to hide our own problems from God, we are less likely to notice whatever solutions God might offer.