Archive | June, 2016

Commentary for Beha’alotecha

24 Jun

In the Torah the worst punishment one can receive is not a death sentence. There is a punishment called kareit– “cutting off”- that is considered to be even worse. The exact details of kareit are debated by the Rabbis, but there is general agreement that it involves being spiritually cut off from the Jewish People, whether through an early death, dying without leaving behind any children to carry on one’s legacy, or more metaphysical means such as the destruction of one’s soul after death or one’s soul being stuck in limbo rather than being allowed to enter Heaven.

 

There are thirty-six commandments one can violate in order to be liable for kareit, including the prohibitions against engaging in various forbidden sexual relationships, eating chametz on Passover, violating the laws of Shabbat or Yom Kippur, worshipping false gods, eating a sacrifice while in a state of impurity, certain types of blasphemy, and drinking blood (among others). These sins must be done willingly, with full knowledge that one is doing something wrong, and without repentance, as such a severe punishment will only be doled out for severe affronts to God.

 

Of the thirty-six commandments one can violate in order to be liable for kareit, thirty-four of them are prohibitions, but there are also two that are positive commandments. Punishment for not performing a positive commandment is in and of itself very rare in the Torah (for example, there is a positive commandment in the Ten Commandments to “honor your father and mother (Ex. 20:12)” but one only incurs a punishment from violating the prohibitions against striking or cursing one’s parents (Ex. 21:15, 17). To have such a harsh punishment attached to positive commandments is very unusual.

The two commandments in question are the obligation of every Jewish male to become circumcised and the obligation of every eligible Jew to bring and eat of the paschal sacrifice.

 

Interestingly, the verb the Bible uses for entering into a covenant with someone- lichrot– comes from the same root as kareit, and literally means “to cut,” based off of the ancient practice of cutting animals in order to make a pact, and is the probable origin of the English phrase “to cut a deal.” Every covenant we see made in the Torah requires mutual action between the parties involved, and both of these mitzvot serve as important symbols of our covenant with God. Circumcision symbolizes a willingness to sacrifice of ourselves for God, and is even referred to in the Grace After Meals as God’s covenant which has been “sealed in our flesh,” while the paschal sacrifice represents God fulfilling the covenant with Abraham by bringing us out of Egypt.

 

The reason this subject comes up in this week’s parshah is because of the actions of a group of Jews who had been ritually impure during the time for offering and eating the paschal sacrifice during the first Passover after the exodus. We learn from Lev. 7:20 that the impure may not eat of sacrificial meat, and thus these people would be unable to bring the paschal sacrifice and would be ineligible to perform that mitzvah for this year. They could have just said, “Oh well. I guess we’ll have to wait until next year,” but instead they approached Moses and Aaron asking “why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord‘s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites (Num. 9:7)?”

 

Moses consults God, who establishes the Second Passover, a day one month later when all of those who were impure or were too far away from Jerusalem to make their paschal offering in the proper

 

time can still fulfill the mitzvah. It is only then that God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that anyone who does can bring a paschal sacrifice but does not do so is subject to kareit. An uncircumcised male Jew is viewed in this same light: as one who could take measures to allow himself to be a party to the covenant but chooses not to do so, and as result are forbidden from eating from the paschal sacrifice (Ex. 12:48), which commemorates a demonstration of God’s willingness and ability to fulfill God’s part of the covenant. If we want to engage in our covenant with God we cannot sit around and do nothing. Instead we must be like those Israelites in the desert who, when faced with not being able to celebrate that covenant, actively sought a way that they could take part. God ensured that their efforts bore fruit, and the will do the same for ours.

Commentary for Naso

21 Jun

This week’s parshah starts off much like last week’s concluded: with the allocation of duties in the Tabernacle to the various Levite families. This lack of change in subject manner is very striking. Usually when we begin a new parshah we get at the very least a moderate change in the subject matter, with the only exceptions being very long pieces of a single narrative, such as the exodus from Egypt or the story of Joseph- and even there the parshah usually ends at what we would normally think of as a decent point to begin a new chapter. Here, the text just marches on from one parshah into the next, still discussing the same thing, with no natural breaking point or cliffhanger.

After the remaining Levites have been assigned their duties, the parshah jumps around, discussing a number of different subjects. First there is a reminder to remove anyone who becomes impure due to Tzara’at, certain types of bodily emission, or by proximity to a human corpse from the camp until such time as they can be purified. It then talks about the laws for restitution of stolen property, the procedures and rituals for dealing with accusations of adultery, and the laws of a Nazir, before giving us the priestly blessing and then concluding with the offerings of the tribal chieftains for the dedication of the Tabernacle. While all of these subjects might seem to have little (if any) connection to each other, their inclusion together in this parshah teaches us an important lesson.

The parshah is bookended by matters that concern the Tabernacle, beginning with the completion of the assignment of the various jobs that need to be done, and concluding with the offerings brought by the leaders of the tribes to celebrate its inauguration. The Talmudic principle of zerizin makdimin l’mitzvot (“we act with alacrity and perform mitzvot at the earliest possible time”) seems to dictate that once the preparatory work for the Tabernacle was completed, the inauguration ceremony should have started as soon as possible. The division of duties for the Levites is the last instructions God gives on this matter before the inauguration, so why does the Torah divert to talking about a bunch of other things before concluding the parshah with the inauguration?

The first thing the Torah tells the Israelites to do after the assignment of duties of the Levites is complete is to remove everyone who has become impure due to Tzara’at, certain types of bodily emission, or by proximity to a human corpse from the camp until such time as they can be purified. These three types of impurities are ones that can spread to other people or objects through various means. Obviously we do not want the Tabernacle, it’s implements, those responsible for working in it or those whose needs are being served by it to become impure, thus we should take steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

The Torah then talks about one who steals from his fellow and what to do in the case of an accusation of adultery. These two matters might seem completely unrelated to the Tabernacle, but they are related to the people who serve in the Tabernacle and rely upon its operation for the their spiritual needs. Theft of property causes material harm to another, while initiating the ritual procedures for an adultery case will cause emotional harm, either due to the eventual revelation of the commission of the act or due to what proves to be an unfounded accusation.  These two passages remind us that while we now have this wondrous spiritual location to help us develop our relationship with God, our conduct away from the Tabernacle and in our relationships with other people is equally important.

After this, the Torah gives the laws of the Nazir, who makes a vow to God to avoid contracting impurity due to proximity to a corpse, and to abstain from combing, shaving with a razor, the consumption of all grape products, and the use of any sort of intoxicant, for a stated period of time. If at any point during this period of time the Nazir messes up and does one of these things, he or she must bring a sin offering to God and start over again. This passage reminds us of the importance of meeting our responsibilities in service to God. The Tabernacle serves an important ritual function for all Israelites, and everyone must do his or her part to ensure that it can continue to serve that function for the community.

Next we receive the priestly blessing and then finally we get to the inauguration ceremony. Having the Tabernacle is not enough; we must make ourselves worthy of it. Only after receiving these reminders from God can we then receive the priestly blessing and the gift of a special place to help us develop our relationship with God. The “dedication” offerings given by the leaders of the tribes at the inauguration ceremony are not just a dedication of the Tabernacle as a place to serve God, but also a dedication of ourselves as worthy servants of God.

Commentary for Shavuot

14 Jun

Shavuot is often referred to as a celebration of the giving of the Torah.   In our prayers we refer to it as zman matan Torahteinu– “the time of the giving of our Torah,” because it takes place on the anniversary of that momentous occasion. We celebrate the occasion by refraining from creative work and instead have festive meals with family and friends. We read about the giving of the Torah from the very Torah that was given to us, and insert special poems into the Torah reading and haftarah that praise God for giving us the Torah.

 

We also commemorate this great moment by trying to bring ourselves back to it. We eat only dairy foods, as our ancestors did while preparing for the giving of the Torah. We decorate the synagogue with flowers and greenery, hearkening back to the way that Mt. Sinai bloomed while the Torah was given, despite being in the middle of a desert. We read the Ten Commandments in the majestic “upper cantillation,” in which each of the commandments is given in one verse, regardless of length, with the exception of the first two, which are read as part of the same verse, just as they were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

 

While it is great to celebrate giving, it is important not to forget about the other side of the coin. Just as talking to someone does no good if they do not listen, so too does giving become irrelevant if the gift is not received and accepted.

 

On Shavuot, in addition to the Torah, haftarah, Hallel, and the special poems, we also read the Book of Ruth. While the Book of Ruth is known for its wonderful messages about family, loyalty, and caring for the needy, it is, at its core, the story of someone who chose to become a Jew. This is the same choice our ancestors made at Mount Sinai. While there have been many midrashim written over the years to praise the pious manner in which the Israelites accepted the Torah, the most important factor is not their piety in making that choice, but the fact that they made that choice at all.

 

Our ancestors did not have to accept the Torah. They could have, as one famous midrash depicts the other nations of the world doing, asked what was in it, decided that they didn’t like it, and told God “thank you, but no.” Instead, they made the conscious choice to receive God’s gift of Torah. We face that choice as well; not just on Shavuot, but on every day of the year. On Shavuot we celebrate God giving us the gift of Torah. Our task is to celebrate our accepting it every single day.

Commentary for Bamidbar

10 Jun

In this week’s parshah, the Israelites are commanded to take a census. A census is a practical matter. The information recorded from it is always put to some sort of official use. In one of the multiple different censuses taken in this week’s parshah, God instructs Moses to count all of the descendants of the tribe of Levi so that they can be assigned to their service in the Tabernacle. Right before this census begins, though, the Torah goes out of its way to remind us that although it is about to tell us that Aaron only has two sons, he also had two others who previously died. The text not only specifically brings up these two sons, Nadav and Avihu, but also the fact that they died without having children. Obviously they can’t serve in the Tabernacle, nor can the nonexistent descendants the text goes out of its way to point out that they didn’t leave behind, so why even mention them at all?

 

Memory- both personal and institutional- is very important in Judaism. While the manner in which their lives ended was very unfortunate, up until that moment Nadav and Avihu had been excellent priests. Throughout their lives they had helped many people improve their relationships with God. However disastrous their end was, that service should not be forgotten. The Torah specifically brings up that they had no children to carry on their legacy to let us know that it is up to us to carry on the memories of those who die with no descendants, so that their good deeds will not be forgotten and will serve as an inspiration to future generations for all time.

Commentary for Bechukotai

7 Jun

In this week’s parshah we read the tochechah, a long series of verses warning us of all of the terrible things that will befall us if we disobey God, and then how much worse things will get if we still proceed in disobeying God after that, etc. etc. One interesting question asked about the tochechah is why it exists in the first place. Obviously disobeying God is bad, and those who disobey God will be punished, but most of us probably could have guessed that from the beginning, and for those who couldn’t they need look no further than the fate of the generation of Noah or those who abandoned God in favor of worshipping the golden calf to see that this is the case. Why, then, is it necessary to spell out the fate the Israelites will face if they abandon God in such painstaking detail?

 

Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus 20:5, determines that the rewards bestowed by God are five hundred times greater than the punishments God bestows. In the first chapter of this week’s parshah, however, there are first a few verses dealing with the rewards we will receive for following in God’s ways, and then there are three times as many verses describing what will happen to us if we spurn them. Ibn Ezra reconciles the contradiction between Rashi’s statement and the hard numbers in our parshah in an interesting way. He notes that the rewards promised to us for following in God’s ways in the beginning of this parshah are described in very general terms, while the punishments for disobedience are described in fine detail. Because God always holds true to God’s word, this leaves wiggle room for the rewards to be increased to whatever degree God believes we have earned, but for the curses, the painstaking detail God uses here is in reality God self-limiting the degree of punishment we will face. With this view, the tochechah serves not only as a warning against the consequences of sin, but also as a promise of compassion.

 

The tochechah should not be looked at as an isolated section, but rather the entire chapter in this week’s parshah should be looked at together. It starts with the promise of blessings we will receive for following in God’s ways, continues with the tochechah listing the punishments we will receive if we do not, and then concludes with the following verses: “But despite all of this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them- for I am The Lord, their God. I will remember for them the covenant of the first ones, those whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be God unto them- I am The Lord. These are the decrees, the ordinances, and the teachings that The Lord gave, between Godself and the Children of Israel, at Mount Sinai, through Moses (Lev. 26:44-46).” With this context it is clear that the tochechah is not about the promise of punishment, but rather about the promise that God will always be open to and desirous of our repentance.

Commentary for Behar

3 Jun

In this week’s parshah God gives the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years. During the sabbatical year we are commanded to let the land lie fallow, eating only crops that have been stored from last year or what grows naturally. After seven cycles of sabbatical years we have a jubilee, at which point all land reverts to its original owners, all debts are forgiven and all indentured servants are freed.

Rather than the standard “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:” this section begins “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: (Lev. 25:1).” This extra bit of detail serves as a narrative reminder that despite everything that has happened and all of the new mitzvot they have learned over the past book and a half, the Israelites have still not left Mount Sinai, where they have been since the giving of the Torah way back in chapter nineteen of Exodus. They will remain at Mount Sinai for another few chapters until they get their (quite literal) marching orders in the second chapter of Numbers. Tradition teaches us that everything in the Torah is written exactly the way it is for a reason, it so begs the question of why exactly this point was chosen to remind us that they are still at Mount Sinai?

Since the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, God has given them many new laws of different types to live by. “Don’t murder,” “don’t steal,” “don’t cheat,” “respect your parents;” these are all laws that most people don’t really have trouble following. Laws like “don’t embarrass others,” “don’t gossip,” and “don’t taunt the foreigner among you;” these are laws that some people may have trouble following, but everyone can understand them because we all know what it feels like to be on the other side of the equation. Laws against idolatry and worshipping others “gods” make sense in our religion. If God is our omnipotent God, then there can’t be any others. Criminal laws are easy for people to understand and all agree they are necessary, even if they might disagree with some of the specifics. While some people might not understand or feel connected to the specifics of ritual laws, everyone understands the general concept that “this is what our group does, so in order to be a member of the group, you have to do it.” They are all laws that, on some level, people understand the value of, whether it is value to the society as a whole or value to the continuance of the religion, in a way that rarely contradicts self-interest in any major, tangible way.

The laws in this week’s parshah are different. During the sabbatical year a farmer will have to give up a huge portion of his or her income due to having very little- if any- product to sell after having fed his or her family first (we are commanded to trust in God that enough food will be provided for us). The jubilee year limits the value of purchasing land (because you will eventually lose the land without getting anything back) and disincentives lending, especially as the jubilee approaches. We often do our best to separate our thoughts of business- and income in particular- from our religious practice as religious figures often give us the message that money doesn’t matter to religion; it is faith and practice that are important. Because of our attempts to separate the two, mitzvot like the sabbatical and especially the jubilee often read to us like poor economic policy rather commandments from God, and thus our self-interest steps in. Following these laws will cause us to make less money. We won’t be able to feed our families as easily or provide ourselves with the luxuries we have grown used to living with, and thus it is these laws more than any others that we will be tempted to ignore. For this reason the Torah prefaces our section with a reminder that the Israelites are still at Mount Sinai. Their revelation might not have been as spectacular as that of the Ten Commandments, but they are still laws given by God and carry the same weight as all of the others.