Archive | May, 2016

Commentary for Emor

23 May

This week’s parshah contains many of the laws for the holidays. Among these is the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog bundle, which also includes the willow and the myrtle. Interestingly, despite being called by its Hebrew name “hadas” elsewhere in the Bible, the Torah here describes it as “anaf etz avot”– “the branch of a braided tree.” The Talmud in Sukkah 32b identifies this as the myrtle and explains that using three words to describe the branch in question when just one would have been sufficient teaches us that we need three myrtle branches in the bundle, but the use of the term “branch of a braided tree” has deeper implications as well.


The only other items in the entire Torah described as being “braided” are the golden chains used to attach the breastplate to the ephod- the special outer tunic- worn by the High Priest. In its commentary, Etz Chayim notes that the purpose of braiding the golden chains was to make them stronger so that they could hold up the breastplate, which was set with twelve precious stones to represent the twelve tribes.


There is a famous midrash that teaches that each of the four species waved on Sukkot represents a different kind of Jew. The myrtle, which has a smell but does not bear fruit, represents those who do mitzvot but do not study Torah, and is juxtaposed to the lulav, which bears fruit but has no taste, representing those who study Torah but do not perform mitzvot. After Sukkot is over, we tend to remove the lulav from our houses rather quickly, as all it will do is sit around and get moldy. The myrtle, on the other hand, we tend to keep around due to its pleasant fragrance.   Knowledge is important, but when not put to use it becomes fleeting and is eventually lost. Actions, on the other hand, stick with us, forming and strengthening connections in our minds. It’s easy to forget a fact but hard to break a habit. Just as the braided golden chains strengthened the physical connection between the High Priest and the breastplate with the stones that represented the people he served, so to does the lesson of the “branch of a braided tree” help us to strengthen our connection, both with Judaism and with others.


Commentary for Kedoshim

16 May

The verse chapter of this week’s parshah, Leviticus 19, is the source of many of the more well-known mitzvot concerning the treatment of other people. It includes the famous “love your fellow as yourself (19:18),” “You shall not curse the deaf and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind (19:14) “you shall not be a gossipmonger (19:16),” and “you shall not stand idly by while your fellows blood is shed (also 19:16).” We are instructed that “you shall not cheat your fellow (19:13),” to revere our parents (19:3), to not lie (19:11), and to not hold grudges (19:18) or hate our fellow in our heart (19:17).


As one would expect, many of these laws have to do with the treatment of the economically disadvantaged. We are taught to always leave some of our harvest for the hungry; “you shall not complete the reaping to the corner of your field, and the gleanings of your harvest you shall not take. You shall not pick the undeveloped twigs of your vineyard, and the fallen fruit of your vineyard you shall not gather; for the poor and the proselyte you shall leave them (19:9-10).” We are told not to exploit our power over our workers by withholding their wages, even for one day (19:13), and act that, by its inclusion in the same verse, is implicitly compared to cheating and robbery. The poor, the foreigner, and the vulnerable in our society are not to be mistreated.


When a dispute arises between two parties, one advantaged and one disadvantaged, our instinct in modern society seems to be to side with the disadvantaged party. After all, not just Judaism but virtually all of the world’s religions teach us to protect those who need protecting and to stand up for the poor and be charitable and help them in any way we can.

But our instincts are just those: instincts. They are an immediate emotional reaction to being confronted with a situation. They are not infallible. For this reason in Leviticus 19:15, the Torah instructs us that “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow.” It is a perversion of justice when the advantaged used their position and their power to abuse the weak, but it is also a perversion of justice to punish those who have done no wrong, no matter what their political or economic status is. True justice, the Torah reminds us, requires us to judge all parties with righteousness; to investigate diligently and to ignore our biases and instincts, and judge solely based on the facts.

Commentary for Acharei Mot

6 May

Every parshah in the Torah are labeled by its incipit, a word or two from the first verse or two of the parshah that serves as a header for at least the first section of the parshah (if not the entire parshah), to make it easy to identify which section we are talking about, with each parshah being given a unique incipit to avoid confusion. This week’s parshah is named “Acharei Mot,” meaning “after the death [of Aaron’s two sons].”

Contrary to what one would expect with a title like this, the subject of Aaron’s sons is never brought up again in this parshah. After this phrase in Lev. 16:2, the second verse of the parshah, the Torah launches into a detailed explanation of the Yom Kippur sacrifice and its ceremony. The title “Acharei Mot,” also doesn’t seem to hold up as chronological transition, as Aaron’s sons died three parshahs ago, and their death has not been mentioned since the end of that section.

While neither the subject matter of the parshah nor its chronological position seem to have any relevance to the parshah’s title to the average reader at first glance, the reason for that is simple: We are not Aaron. Since the deaths of Aaron’s sons, all of the laws given have been given to both Moses and Aaron to disseminate to the people, or laws given to Moses himself to disseminate. Any time a priest has been required, it has been specified that the job can be done by any of the priests. Now it is time for the Yom Kippur sacrifice and ceremony, a job that can only be done by the High Priest: Aaron himself. The words “acharei mot” are a wake-up call to Aaron. He has suffered a terrible, painful loss, and he has grieved, but he cannot grieve forever. He has responsibilities to his community that he must attend to. While it is impossible to ignore that his life will never be the same as it was before his sons died, he must accept the new status quo and move on into this new normal for the sake of those who are counting on him who are still living.

Commentary for the Last Days of Passover

2 May

The Halachically mandated portion of the Passover seder concludes with the “chasal siddur Pesach” paragraph in which we sing joyously about how we have now completed the seder “in accordance with its Halachah, according to all of its ordinances and rules” and we hope that just as we have been fortunate enough to complete it correctly this year, that we may prove ourselves worthy to be able to complete it next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.


This paragraph, authored by the eleventh century French Rabbi Yosef Tov Alem ben Shmuel, makes a very interesting literary choice. The entire paragraph is written in Hebrew with the exception of the very first word, which is written in Aramaic. The word in question, “chasal,” means “concluded.” When the letters that comprise the word are spelled out as words themselves and the numerical values of their letters are added up according to the Gematria system, we wind up with a total of 612.


To go out of your way to choose a word for “concluded” whose numerical value adds up to 612- just one shy of 613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah- seems at first like a very odd choice. After all, isn’t the whole point of the paragraph for us to proudly announce that we finished the seder according to all of its laws- in other words, that we have completed all of the seder mitzvot?


Earlier in the seder Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah brings up Deut. 16:3, which we read on the eighth day of Passover. The section of the verse he focuses on reads “in order that you shall remember the day you departed from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” While we gather at the seder to tell the story of the exodus, we are commanded to remember it every day of our lives. Earlier in that same verse (among many other places in the Torah) we are reminded that we are to eat matzah and abstain from eating chametz for seven days. Seven days; not just one.


By going out of his way to choose a word whose letters (when they themselves are spelled out) have a Gematria value that falls just one short of 613, Rabbi Yosef is reminding us that Passover does not end with the conclusion of the seder. There is still more holiday to celebrate. More matzah to eat, more davening to do, more Yom Tov to be enjoyed, and an entire year during which we need to apply the lessons of Passover to our lives.