Archive | June, 2017

Commentary for Naso

2 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.

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Commentary for Shavuot

2 Jun

On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah, and what better way could there be to show our appreciation for this precious gift than by utilizing it? Thus, we stay up all night studying Torah, and then, during morning services, we do a public reading. Whenever we have a holiday that tells the story of a specific moment in time that is related in the Bible, our Torah reading for that day will either tell that exact story or tell the story of the closest available section while delegating the duties of telling the exact story to the section of the Bible in which it is contained. On Purim we read the background of the Purim story from the Torah, followed by the story itself in the Book of Ester. On the first day of Passover we read about that day’s events- the paschal sacrifice, the slaying of the firstborn, and the exodus from Egypt. On the seventh day of Passover, when the Red Sea was split, we read about the splitting of the sea and the ultimate defeat of the Egyptian army at God’s hand, while the Israelites begin their trek to the Promised Land. On Shavuot, then, we naturally read about the giving of the Torah and all the preparations therefore, from the moment the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai up through the end of the climactic revelation and the reading of the Ten Commandments.

 

Unlike the other holidays, however, the Torah reading for Shavuot does not stop there. Instead it continues for one more aliyah in which Moses starts to expound on some of the laws we just heard. What, exactly, falls into the category of the “sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or the earth below or the water beneath the earth” that we have just been forbidden from making? And if we can’t use these items as a way to focus ourselves on our God as our neighbors do for their gods then how shall we worship our God without violating this commandment? If we are to make an altar then what means and methods of construction are acceptable for it? And what manner of conduct that our neighbors might engage in during their ceremonies should we engage or not engage in?

 

These questions whose answers Moses provides set the tone for the process of Jewish legal thought, but their placement here and their inclusion in the Shavuot Torah reading teaches us another important value of Jewish learning: there is always more to learn. The story of receiving the Torah does not end with the glitz and glamour of the revelation at Sinai. It continues from the moment afterwards right up until this very day. After Shavuot there are no holidays in sight for almost four months, but as we learn from the Shavuot Torah reading, our celebration of receiving the Torah must still continue.

Commentary for Bamidbar

2 Jun

In this week’s parshah God instructs Moses to appoint the members of the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron to assist Aaron and his sons and their descendants in their priestly duties.   God notes that this role of special services was originally assigned to all male firstborn (of their mother) Israelites, regardless of tribe (Ex. 13:2, 15). Moses is then instructed to take a census of the total number of male firstborn Israelites, subtract it from number of Levite males (minus Aaron’s family), and have the remaining Israelite families on the list whose son had no Levite counterpart (determined via lottery) to serve in his place pay a small fee to the priests to make up for the service in the Temple that their sons should have theoretically been doing that will have to get done by a Levite working overtime.

While it seems natural that these instructions should all come in one section of our parshah, they actually come in two different sections, surrounded on both sides by a census of the tribe of Levi. It begins with Aaron’s family, then we get the announcement that the rest of the Levites will serve in the place of the firstborn, then a census of some of the remaining Levites, then the instructions to take a census of the firstborn, compare it to the Levites, and then have those who have no Levite counterpart pay the fee, and then, finally, the rest of the census of the Levites.

The second section of instructions offers us a hint into why the Levites were chosen to replace the firstborn. The first two times it appears in that section, the Hebrew word for firstborn- “bechor” is written without the letter vav, which is usually found in the word, but does not change its meaning or pronunciation with its absence. Peirush HaRokeach teaches that the word not being written out in the usual full manner indicates that the firstborn no longer have what should be their “full” status due to their participation in the sin of the golden calf. The Levites, on the other hand, had not participated in the sin of the golden calf, and immediately rallied around Moses when he returned and helped punish those had turned away from God (Ex. 32:26), and thus they were awarded the status that the firstborn forfeited with their sin. This explanation raises an interesting question: If all of those who turned away from God were put to the sword then any firstborn alive at this point would have been innocent of the crime, so why are they being punished?

The answer is that, Halachically, they’re not being punished. While God does instruct Moses to have the Levites serve in place of the firstborn, nowhere does the Torah say that the firstborn lose their mitzvah to serve. This distinction is important because of the concept of a shaliach, one who is sent by another to do a specific mitzvah on his or her behalf. The classical example of this is a father who hires a mohel to perform his son’s bris instead of doing so himself, as he is technically commanded to. Not only does the person still get credit for doing the mitzvah, but he or she enables the shaliach to also get credit for doing the mitzvah as well. Thus, by being either matched up with a Levite or by paying a fee to the Temple to ensure that the required work will be done by someone, the firstborn (though his parents, as his designated legal representatives until he reaches bar mitzvah) still gets credit for the mitzvah, and allows a Levite to get credit for it as well.

However, someone can only be a shaliach for a mitzvah that he or she is already obligated to perform (to continue the example, the mohel must himself be a father). Thus, God needed to declare that the Levites were eligible to perform the same service granted to the firstborn so that they could then perform the mitzvah on their behalf.

That being said, while the Torah specifically goes out of its way to ensure that the firstborn still have the de jure ability to serve, there is still a direct order from God that they have a Levite serve for them, so they are de facto prohibited from serving because doing so would be violating a commandment. What, then, is the reason that God saw fit to transfer these duties from the firstborn to the Levites?

The answer lies in with the only firstborn who still served in the Temple: the firstborn Levites. Obviously not all of the firstborn of the other tribes abandoned God for the golden calf or else there couldn’t have been more firstborn than the total number of Levites by this point, but we do know that the Levites were the only tribe from whom no firstborn participated in the sin. What made the Levite firstborn different? They were Levites.

Order of birth is an issue of happenstance, and rarely has any sort of effect on one’s values. Family, on the other hand, has a major effect. It was not just the firstborn Levites who remained loyal to God, but all of the Levites, because of the values they were raised with. To raise our children to have good values, we must teach them these values ourselves and do our best to surround them with people who share these values, just as the Torah teaches us by surrounding the sections containing the Levites’ reward for adhering to their values with names of the very families that raised them with those values.