Archive | February, 2017

Commentary for Mishpatim

28 Feb

In last week’s parshah we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. There was smoke and thunder and the Israelites were “seeing the sounds (Ex. 20:15).” According to various midrashim the desert spontaneously bloomed and Mount Sinai hovered in the air, and while the Ten Commandments were being read the rest of the world was completely silent. Moses read the Ten Commandments to us in a voice amplified by God, telling us that there was only one true God, and that this God had some rules for us that we had better follow, with the context of what was going on making it pretty clear that God was going to get very angry if we didn’t follow them. What happened there was clearly a brush with the Divine; an inspiring experience that could leave no doubt that the rules Moses read to us came straight from God and so we had better follow them or else.

Conversely, this week’s parshah is almost entirely about civil regulations and fines and punishments for theft or negligence or personal injury. While Moses’ reading of the Ten Commandments comes with the a picture being painted of spectacular sights and sounds that add a gravitas to the scene, the mitzvot that Moses reads to us this week are devoid of any such description, and their dry nature leads one to conjure up an image of Moses standing there, pointing out the nuances of the differences of the fines for stealing a sheep as opposed to stealing an ox while the Israelites are slumped backwards in their chairs doing their best not to fall asleep.   These rules just don’t seem like the type of rules that a God would make. We can understand that God wants us to celebrate certain holy days or not believe in false gods or not to hurt other people, but deciding how much someone has to pay if they dig a pit and someone else’s donkey falls into it almost seems like it should be beneath God. That is the sort of thing that bureaucrats quibble over, not the Sovereign of the Universe. And yet this week’s parshah ends with the same type of wondrous visuals and public affirmations of God’s sovereignty and fealty to these new laws that were found in last week’s parshah.

In our modern world with our separation of Church and State the idea of Divinely mandated tort laws can seem like a completely foreign concept. This is only because our society has come so far from the anarchy that once was that we have forgotten what the purpose of these laws are. Fortunately, we have this week’s special maftir to remind us.

This week is Shabbat Shekalim, in which we read about the annual half-shekel tax on everyone aged twenty and above, which went to the upkeep of the tabernacle. This maftir is always read on the Shabbat before or coinciding with the beginning of the month of Adar, and it was instituted by the Rabbis for the simple reason that it was a reminder to people that this tax was coming due soon and they needed to make sure they paid their share. Everyone made use of the tabernacle at some point during the year, so everyone was obligated to help pay for its upkeep. If they didn’t pay their tax then the tabernacle would run out of money for its upkeep and eventually fall into a state of disrepair and no one would be able to use it.

The civil and criminal laws discussed in this week’s parshah serve a similar purpose to the half-shekel tax. If everyone doesn‘t “pay their share” by submitting to the system every time it has judged them to be in the wrong, then people will lose faith in the courts and start to take matters of justice into their own hands, and society, like the tabernacle in disrepair, will fall apart. These laws help us to fulfill the commandment God gave to Noah when Noah and his family were tasked with repopulating the world and starting a new society to establish a system of courts. Although they might not seem like it to our modern eyes, the laws given in this week’s parshah are no less Divine and no less worthy of celebration and study than the Ten Commandments that we received last week, for these are the laws that help us hold our society together.


Commentary for Yitro

28 Feb

Religion is, inherently, an experiential thing. If it wasn’t, it would be government; just a plodding series of laws and statutes and regulations that we are required to follow. Religion wants you to feel something. You should be kind to your fellow man not just because the rules say so, but because you share a Creator who created you both in His image. Despite this, we often approach religion from an analytical standpoint, and there two major reasons for this.

The first, simply, is that humans are analytical creatures. When we see something, we want to understand how it works and why it is the way it is, and that is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with pouring over every word of text about the four species and contrasting all of their characteristics to determine which piece of the lulav-etrog bundle goes where and which direction to point and shake them at which time, because in doing so, we will gain a greater understanding of what it is we are doing and thus, hopefully, have a more rich experience when we perform that mitzvah.

The second reason that we approach religion analytically is because experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate. At the Seder, the Haggadah urges the participant to “see himself as if he was leaving Egypt. We try to imagine what it would be like to be a slave and then finally experience freedom for the first time, but we have trouble because it is not an experience most of us can relate to. Because we cannot directly relate to it, we take the facts we have learned about slavery and we attempt to analytically break them down into situations and emotions we can understand, but we cannot truly recreate them, and thus cannot really achieve the intended experience.

At times when an experiential connection fails us, we look to analysis to create an experience for us. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, which occurs in this week’s parshah, is seen as a seminal moment in Jewish history. The scene described in the text is a grandiose production of sights and sounds: Thunder and lightning, pillars of clouds and smoke, shofars blaring all over the place, and a loud rumbling voice coming from the heavens. Exodus 20:15 even tells us that the people experience a form of synesthesia, literally seeing sounds (“and the whole nation saw the voices).” Because such an ecstatic experience cannot possibly be recreated in our minds, people have tended to focus on analyzing the Ten Commandments down to every last detail, to the point where there is actually disagreement between Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations on exactly where the divisions between some of the commandments are.

The Ten Commandments are unique among all of the other sections of the Torah because they have two sets of cantillation marks instead of the usual one set. The first of these sets, the lower cantillation (named because the mark on the first word of the first commandment is below the word), divides the longer, more detailed commandment into multiple verses, while some of the shorter, two to four word commandments, are all contained within a single verse. This version, used by people who are studying Torah, divides the commandments into verses reflecting normal sentence structure while its cantillation marks are used to fulfill their additional role as grammatical indicators and punctuation to help us understand and analyze the Torah.

The second set of cantillation marks are the upper cantillation (named because the first mark is above the first word), and is used for public Torah readings. In this set of notes, the cantillation is much more flashy, with many notes that are very long, very high, or very low. The commandments are divided into nine verses, with each commandment being its own verse, regardless of length, aside from the first two commandments, which are one long verse because those were the two commandments transmitted from God directly to the Israelites, without Moses acting as an intermediary, and were heard at the exact same time. The upper cantillation is intended to help us try to recreate just some small portion of the experience at Sinai. It tries to give us an experience to go with our analysis, because it is only through both experience and analysis that we can truly appreciate our relationship with God and God’s world.

Commentary for Beshalach

10 Feb

Exodus 15:20-21 reads “And Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. And Miriam spoke up to them: “Sing to the Lord for He is exalted above all; horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.” These verses are the subject of many questions, ranging form the analytical (where did they get the drums?) to the philosophical (what purpose does it serve for Miriam and the women to repeat the song that Moses and all of the Israelites had just sung?), but in all of this questioning, an important milestone is often overlooked: Despite having been in the story of Exodus since almost the beginning, this is the first time that Miriam is named.


Outside of genealogies, Biblical figures are usually only named if they are going to play some sort of important role, be it a role within the story or a role in service to the community. Miriam, however, plays a role in the story when she is introduced way back in Ex. 2:4, following Moses’ basket until it is spotted by Pharaoh’s daughter and then suggesting that her mother be chosen as a wet-nurse. Why, then, is Miriam only given a name now?


The answer is found in the other strikingly odd part of Miriam’s naming in this verse. While she is introduced in Ex. 2:4 as Moses’ sister, several chapters before Aaron is ever mentioned, she is instead identified in 15:20 as “the sister of Aaron” and from this we are left to infer that she is therefore also Moses’ sister who was mentioned back in chapter two.


When he is anointed as the High Priest in chapter twenty-nine of Exodus, Moses is instructed to anoint Aaron by placing the sacrificial blood on his ear, his thumb, and his big toe. A midrash explains the symbolic nature of these parts of the body as follows: the toe symbolizes that the High Priest must go out and walk among the people, the ear symbolizes that he must listen to them, and the thumb symbolizes that he must act on their behalf. In other words, Aaron’s job is not just to perform the sacrifices that are asked of him, but to also reach out to the people and help to lift them up spiritually as well.


While the song that Miriam sings with the women is the same as the first line of the song that Moses had just sung with the entire people, the phrases used to introduce them are very different. While Moses is depicted as singing with the people, Miriam is depicted as leading the women by singing to them. Moses sings with the people when they are all at a spiritual high together after having witnessed God’s awesome might saving them from the Egyptians, Miriam waits until that high has died down and then attempts to bring the women back up to that level. Miriam is named here, as Aaron’s sister, rather than back in 2:4 as Moses’ because it is only now that she has found her true role. Her job is not to teach like Moses’ is, but rather, like Aaron, her job is to serve the people by helping to bring them up higher and establish a greater spiritual connection with God.

Commentary for Bo

10 Feb

To many modern readers the most morally troubling aspect of the story of the exodus is the idea that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This phrase (or a variant thereof), appears four times in the narrative- once in last week’s parshah and three times in this week’s- and is always followed by Pharaoh refusing to let the Israelites go, resulting in more plagues befalling Pharaoh and the Egyptians, bothers many readers because it seems like God is stacking the deck against Pharaoh. Even when Pharaoh might be willing to let the Israelites go as God has been commanding him, God is seemingly forcing Pharaoh to refuse to do so, which results in more punishment for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. If Pharaoh was prepared to let the Israelites go after just six plagues, then doesn’t God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” so that he does not do so mean that all of the remaining plagues constitute unnecessary suffering that only occurs because of God’s manipulation of Pharaoh?

The first time that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” is after the sixth plague: the plague of boils. Before this point, whenever Moses and Aaron initiated a demonstration of God’s might as a warning to Pharaoh, they were usually opposed by Pharaoh’s “magicians” who would attempt to replicate the feat, with varying degrees of success. With the sixth plague, however, “The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the other Egyptians (Ex. 9:11).” Then, in the very next verse, we are told that “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he would not heed them, just as the Lord had told Moses.”

The second time the phrase appears is after the seventh plague- or perhaps more appropriately, before the eighth plague. The exact timing of this is important for two reasons. The first is the timing of the plague in context with those that came before it. The past few plagues- cattle disease, boils, and hail- have caused enormous suffering to the Egyptians. First their livestock were killed, damaging their supply of food. Then they themselves became sick (although midrash teaches that the only ones who died from this affliction were the magicians). Then the hail damaged their crops, further taxing the food supply. To put it simply, the Egyptians are really starting to feel the effects of God’s wrath. Frogs and lice were surely annoying, but they did not cause much death or suffering. Now is when the plagues have really started to kick it up into high gear.

The second reason the timing of this is significant is because during the seventh plague Pharaoh appears to have had an epiphany that he and the Egyptians are in the wrong and that God is right and the Israelites should be set free. He asks Moses to ask God to relieve the plague and God does, but “when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and continued to sin; he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart stiffened (Ex.9:34-35)” all on its own and he refused to let the Israelites go.

God responds to this by hardening the hearts of not only Pharaoh, but of his courtiers as well (Ex. 10:1), then instructing Moses and Aaron to go warn Pharaoh that if he does not let the Israelites go, the next plague will be locusts that will wipe out the crops that survived the hail. When Moses and Aaron leave, Pharaoh’s courtiers beg him to give in to God’s demands, or at the very least try to negotiate a deal where some of the Israelites will be allowed to leave, saying “How long will this be a snare for us?… are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost (Ex. 10:7)?” After Pharaoh’s attempt at negotiation fails, the plague is brought on, and soon enough, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron again, admitting that he is in the wrong and begging for the plague to be lifted, asking them to “Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your God that God will but remove only this death from me (Ex. 10:17).” God removes the plague, but once again God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he does not let the Israelites go.

The final mention of this phrase occurs after the ninth plague has been lifted and Pharaoh attempts to negotiate with Moses once again. Pharaoh finally agrees to let all of the Israelites go, but insists that all of their flocks remain in Egypt. This would rob the Israelites of what would have been their main food source, which would all but ensure that the Israelites would be forced to choose between returning to slavery in Egypt and dying of starvation in the desert.

The common theme between all of these events is Pharaoh’s lack of compassion. While he himself suffered from the boils, his loyal magicians all perished, but even upon seeing this he did not summon Moses and Aaron back and begs them to remove the plague as he often would. Then, after the finally realizing that he is in the wrong during the seventh plague, he reverts right back to sinning, knowing that it will only continue the cycle of punishment being brought down upon him and his people. When he is warned about the eighth plague- the second in a row to target the crops- Pharaoh still won’t let the Israelites go because he knows that he will always be able to afford food. It is Pharaoh’s courtiers- who also had their hearts hardened- who realized the great suffering this plague would cause to the Egyptian people and begged Pharaoh to seek some kind of settlement. Pharaoh agrees to do so, but offers terms that he knows will be unacceptable to Moses because he has no interest in the negotiations succeeding. When the plague hits, Pharaoh notably begs Moses to ask God to “but remove only this death from me.” Not from “us” or “my people,” but from “me.

After the ninth plague, Pharaoh once again enters into negotiations intending to offer terms he knows will result in the breakdown of negotiations and God once again hardens his heart in preparation for the final plague. The purpose of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not to have an excuse to inflict more suffering by making Pharaoh refuse to release the Israelites, but rather to increase Pharaoh’s own personal tolerance for the conditions of the plagues in the hope that, as his courtiers come to do before the eighth plague, this will cause Pharaoh to focus less on his own suffering and more on the suffering of others, so he will understand what he has done wrong by enslaving the Israelites and so he will learn to pay attention to the needs of his subjects, as any good ruler must do. After the smiting of the first-born there is “a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead (Ex. 12:30),” and Pharaoh, hearing this “loud cry” of all of Egypt, finally understands the suffering he has caused to both the Israelites and his own people, and sets the Israelites free.