Archive | March, 2017

Commentary for Vaykira

31 Mar

Unlike most sections of the Torah in which God details various laws to Moses, which tend to begin with “And the Lord spoke Moses, saying,” our parshah, which details the laws of various common sacrifices, begins by saying that God “called to Moses [and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying] (Lev. 1:1).” There are only four other times in the Torah when God “called to” Moses.   Once to get Moses’ attention at the burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and three times in relation to the giving of the Torah (Ex. 19:3 to instruct the people to get ready, and in Ex. 19:20 and Ex. 24:16 to call Moses up the mountain to receive the Torah). These three events- receiving the Torah, learning the laws of sacrifices, and getting Moses ready to do his part in freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt- are representative of the three concepts on which Shimon HaTzadik famously says that “the world stands” upon in Pirkei Avot 1:2: Torah, divine worship, and acts of loving-kindness.

 

Interestingly, when God “called to” Moses about each of these things, Moses already had a bit of experience with each one. By the time God calls to him at the burning bush Moses has already saved a helpless Israelite from being beaten by a taskmaster and also saved Jethro’s daughters from a group of ruffians by the well. When he is called to in order to receive the Torah (and help the Israelites prepared to do so), Moses has already been receiving God’s instructions and relaying them to the Israelites for quite some time, including detailing important mitzvot such as the laws of Passover, tefillin, and the procedures for the redemption of the firstborn, and Moses has experience with performing sacrifices with specific rules well before this week’s parshah, as Moses himself participated in the very first paschal sacrifice.

 

When most people think of a moment of “calling” they tend to envision someone being called out of the blue by some invisible force of destiny to pursue a path they had never considered before- as if all of a sudden a door appeared where there had never been one before and they felt compelled to walk through it and see what was on the other side. In reality, though, when most people experience a moment of “calling,” it is for something they already have some level of involvement in. When God calls to Moses to undertake these extremely important roles- being God’s representative in the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, being the instrument of transmission of God’s will to the world via the Torah, and for teaching the Israelites an organized system of worship to help them establish a relationship with God- in areas in which Moses already has some experience because rushing into something totally blindly and deciding that it is your destiny to do that thing is foolhardy. We can learn from the example God sets with Moses to help us find our own calling. Rather than looking for something to go rush off into, we should approach everything we do with our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts open because if we don’t, we might not hear that call when it comes.

Commentary for Vayakhel-Pekudei

29 Mar

This week’s (double) parshah begins with God instructing Moses to remind the Israelites that no work is to be done on Shabbat, with the addition of the specific law that “You shall not kindle fire in any of your settlements on the Sabbath Day (Ex. 35:3).” This reminder and expansion of the rules of Shabbat comes just as the Israelites are about to begin building the tabernacle. Rashi comments that the timing of this is no coincidence, theorizing that the Israelites, swept up as they were in their enthusiasm to help build the tabernacle, might have assumed that the mitzvah of building a place to help them connect to God would override the prohibitions of Shabbat when in reality this was not the case, so God decided that this reminder was necessary.

Every time the observance of Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah, a new dimension is added to it. In this case, that new dimension is the prohibition against lighting a fire. The relationship between fire and humanity is a double-edged one. From the time humans appeared on this planet all the way up until today it has been both one of our greatest allies and one of our deadliest adversaries. It provides heat to protect us from the cold, kills off germs and parasites in our food and helps us shape metal into tools so that we can affect the world around us in ways that our human bodies are not naturally capable of doing. We have used fire for everything from staving off predators to launching astronauts into space. And yet fire is also extremely dangerous to us. The moment fire gets out of control it becomes a deadly threat to everyone and everything around it. It burns and consumes and kills and destroys.

Interestingly, fire is often used as a metaphor for passion. An inspirational speaker will be described as having “fire in his/her eyes.” Fire is drive and determination and dedication. The resolve to keep striving no matter how bleak things look is “a fire that won’t go out.”

Though usually portrayed as a positive, it is important to remember that this “fire” can also become dangerous if you lose control of it. God’s warning to the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat right before they begin construction of the tabernacle is meant to teach them not to let their zeal for one good cause them to trample on another. Although there is no tabernacle currently under construction, this is a lesson that we can still benefit from today. It is good to have fire, but if we allow ourselves to lose control of it- if we focus so much on our fire that we begin to justify spreading it indiscriminately- then no matter how noble our intentions are, the end result will be that everything around us will burn.

Commentary for Ki Tissa

17 Mar

In this week’s parshah we read the story of the golden calf. Fearing Moses had abandoned them or died on Mount Sinai, the Israelites abandoned God and started to worship an idol that they built. When Moses returns, bearing the two tablet with the Ten Commandments written on them, and sees what the Israelites are doing, he throws the tablets to the ground, shattering them. After much pleading for the Israelites lives, both by the Israelites themselves and by Moses, God agrees to spare them, and orders Moses to carve two new tablets.

 

God’s exact command to Moses regarding carving the new tablets is as follows: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke (Ex. 34:1).” The Rabbis teach us that there are no extraneous words in the Torah. Each and every word is meant to teach us something. In this verse, the final phrase “which you broke” appears to be extraneous, as the rest of the verse (particularly the phrase “like the first”) makes it quite obvious that God is talking about the first set of tablets, so why does God feel the need to tell Moses that the tablets in question are the ones “which you broke?”

Moses’ breaking of the tablets was a knee-jerk reaction. He saw something that infuriated him, so, in his rage, he threw the things he was holding to the ground.

 

While surely we can find great symbolism in Moses’ action, the fact remains that that action was, in fact, a reaction, and an impulsive, angry one at that. . If Moses, the greatest of the prophets, can become so angry that he shatters the two tablets with the Ten Commandments on them, given to him directly by God, then there is no telling what we can say or do in a moment of anger. By reminding Moses that he was the one who broke the tablets, God is rebuking Moses- and warning us- that we are responsible for all of our own actions, even if they are knee-jerk reactions to outside provocation

Commentary for Purim

17 Mar

We often think of Purim as holiday about individuals. All of the major turning points in the story essential boil down to whatever decision King Achashverosh’s whims guide him to make at the time. His decisions are certainly influenced at different times by the actions of Ester, Mordechai, Haman, (and a few others), but even those actions are all undertaken and performed by each of those people as individuals. Similarly, Haman’s decision to bribe Achashverosh to allow him to annihilate the Jews is motivated by the actions of one single Jew among the crowd, Mordechai, refusing to bow to him.

 

What Purim really is, however, is a story about the power of individuals within the group. Haman was one of Achashverosh’s top advisors, but he was certainly not his only advisor. Any of the others could have come forward and tried to convince Achashverosh that authorizing the genocide of the Jewish People was a bad idea, using whatever angle- moral, financial, political- they thought would most appeal to the king. But none of them did, and so the decree went unopposed until Ester stepped up to plead with the king. In his role as king over the subjects of the Persian Empire, Achashverosh shows his ability to unite his subjects- as seen in the lavish party that dominates the first chapter of the megilah, to which representatives of all peoples and lands were invited to make merriment together- or to enable their worst inner demons by inviting them to participate in a genocide which chapter nine shows that they were all too eager to participate in, even with the knowledge that the Jews were now authorized to fight back.

 

On the Jewish side we see Ester get a lot of credit (and deservedly so) for saving the Jews, but if each individual Jew does not personally echo Ester’s question in 8:6, “For how can I passively witness the evil is going to befall my people, and how can I passively witness the destruction of my kindred?” and make the decision to take up arms and defend themselves, then the king’s decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves will not matter because they will not have the forces necessary to prevent the slaughter. The story of Purim is not just one about how our choices affect ourselves, but about they affect those around us as well.

Commentary for Tetsaveh

17 Mar

This week’s parshah contains two interesting notes of Torah trivia. The first, and much more widely known, is that this is the only parshah in the Torah from the time of Moses’ birth up until the beginning of Deuteronomy (where Moses takes over as the narrator for most of the book) in which Moses’ name is not mentioned.   One common explanation for this is that this parshah is almost always read on the week of Moses’ yahrzeit (Adar 7, which fell this year on this past Sunday), and that his name being missing from this parshah alludes to that fact.

 

The second, and much less widely known bit of trivia about this week’s parshah is that it is the only parshah in the Torah that is written almost entirely in the second person. God is the narrator, addressing Moses with instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, the vestments of the priests and High Priests, and the procedures for their initiation.

 

In his exploration of an alternative explanation for the first trivia note, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe seizes on this second one to turn the idea of the first on its head. He points out that the parshah begins with God addressing Moses by saying “And you… (Ex. 27:20).” Rabbi Schneerson sees the word “you” not as a generic second person pronoun but as a truer essence of a person’s being. As he puts it, “a person’s name is not the essence of his being, it is an added dimension to his being that allows him to relate to others. Simply put, why does a person have a name? So that others can call him. In and of himself, he has no need for a name. Thus, before he is given a name, the essence of a person exists (Sicha on Shabbat Tetsaveh, 1991).”

This essence is encompassed in the word “you.” “You” is not limited by a name or a title or a description, or anything else about you or how you relate to that person. “You” is everything that makes you who you are.

 

As we are often reminded, one of the human limits we face is our mortality. Many years ago this week, Moses died. By choosing this week to not address Moses by name but rather to address him as “you,” God teaches us that although Moses might be gone, the essence of him- the lessons he taught us, the values he lived by, and the example he set- is still here.

Commentary for Terumah

6 Mar

In this week’s parshah the Israelites are commanded to build the tabernacle. Inside the tabernacle there are many different items that need to be built from many different individual parts, and each built in a specific way. To make things even more confusing, some of the pieces have very similar names. In fact three of them, the caphtor, the caporet, and the parochet, all consist of the same four Hebrew letters, just mixed around in a different order. While the roots of all three words are different, the Rabbis often find merely sounding alike as reason enough to look for a connection between words, so three similar-sounding and rather unique nouns all appearing connected with the tabernacle must be meant to teach us something.

 

The caphtor was a calyx (a fancy design put at the head of a column) that was found at the top of each branch of the menorah. They served no functional purpose, and they don’t appear to have had any symbolic meaning, either. Their purpose was simply to make the menorah look extra pretty. In doing so, however, they, somewhat paradoxically, did take on a purpose.

On Shabbat and holidays one can make Kiddush out of any regular old cup, even a paper or plastic one. In fact, one does not really need a cup at all. It is perfectly Halachically permissible to say Kiddush over the wine or grape juice while it is still in the bottle. And yet almost every family has a special cup in their house that they use for Kiddush. It is a fancier cup than all of their others, and we often spend more time picking it out than we do for utensils that we use much more regularly. While each caphtor was, on one level, nothing but extra work for the artisans crafting the menorah, the fact that the artisans spent more time on the menorah than they otherwise would have because they had to craft each caphtor to make the menorah look prettier teaches us that we can make something holier by putting more of our time, money, and effort into in order to make it stand out more.

 

The parochet was the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the slightly less holy areas of the rest of the tabernacle. There was nothing intrinsically holy about the land on which the Holy of Holies was designated while the Israelites were travelling in the desert. The prohibition for anyone other than the High Priest walking into the Holy of Holies did not extend to that patch of ground once the Israelites packed up and moved on in their journey. Once the Israelites had left, that patch of ground reverted to being no different than the ground two inches away on the other side of the parochet. What made that land special was that the parochet was used to cordon it off. It was assigned a special level of holiness and then the Israelites treated it as such, and therefore they made it holy.

 

The caporet was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Containing two cherubs representing the heavens and the cover itself representing the earth, the caporet was hammered out of one single piece of solid gold. In this way the caporet brings together these two lessons to teach us that holiness requires a unified effort of both the human and the Divine.