Commentary for Shmini

26 Apr

This week’s parshah is called “Shmini,” meaning “eighth.” This name comes from the fact that it begins with the eighth day of the ceremony to inaugurate Aaron and his sons as the priests and to consecrate the Tabernacle, the first seven of which we read about in the previous parshah. It seems odd to not include all eight days of the ceremony in the same parshah, but everything in the Torah happens the way it does for a reason.

To understand the significance of the number eight in Judaism, it is first necessary to understand the significance of the number seven. Seven represents completeness, such as the seven days in a week or the seven weeks of the Omer or seven aliyot in each parshah.

If seven represents completeness, then eight represents that which comes next. A bris, representing the entry into the covenant is held on the eighth day of a baby’s life (unless there are medical complications). The Shmini Atzeret is either a one-day holiday coming after the seven-day holiday of Sukkot or it is the next phase of Sukkot, coming after an initial seven-day phase.

The eighth day that our parshah begins on also marks such a moment for the Jewish People. The inauguration of the priests and the consecration of the Tabernacle are major changes to how the Israelites worship God. There will now be a central location at which all sacrifices are to take place and designated people who will work there in order to ensure that the sacrifices are carried out in accordance with the new guidelines Moses has received. After a week’s worth of ceremonies during which poor Moses had to erect the Tabernacle each morning and then take it down each night all by himself, the Tabernacle will now be left up, and it will be Aaron and his sons, not Moses, who are in charge of facilitating this avenue of the Israelites’ relationship with God. This is a moment of major change in the way the Israelites relate to God.

This theme of a change in the nature or focus of the relationship between us and God is a theme that is found throughout these “eighth day” occurrences. On the seven days of Sukkot we offer a total of seventy sacrifices, one representing each of the other nations of the world, but then, on Shmini Atzeret, we offer only one, representing the Jewish People, and shift our focus from worldly matters, such as the celebration of the harvest, to our relationship with God. A bris represents an inauguration into the Jewish People and becoming part of the covenant that our ancestors made with God.

This theme even goes all the way back to the very first “eighth day” in history. In discussing why we bless God as the One “Who creates the illuminations of fire,” during the havdalah service but not any other time we use candles (such as lighting Shabbat candles) the Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says that fire was created at the conclusion of the very first Shababt. A midrash expands on this statement, explaining that the light God created at the beginning of creation was an all-encompassing light, illuminating everything, with no connection to any celestial or terrestrial source. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, part of their punishment was to be the removal this light from the world they inhabited. The midrash further explains that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge just before Shabbat started, so God decided to delay their punishment until after Shabbat ended. When Shabbat ended and the sun went down, Adam and Eve experienced darkness for the first time in their lives, and they were utterly terrified. Seeing their fear, God gave them the gift of fire so that they would not be afraid whenever it was dark.

Transitions are never easy. They are stressful, worrying, and even sometimes downright terrifying. In these difficult and uncertain times it is important to remember the lesson of Shmini: No matter what else changes when the seventh day ends and the eighth day begins, God will always be there for us.


Commentary for Concluding Days of Pesach

16 Apr

The Torah reading for the seventh day of Passover is focused on the crossing of the Red Sea and the accompanying Song of the Sea with which the Israelites praise God for saving them. The haftarah is the twenty-second chapter of II Samuel, which contains a personal prayer from (not yet King) David thanking God for saving him from King Saul, who has ordered his execution. The obvious connection between the two passages is that both contain a prayer that thanks God for salvation from a more powerful foe, but the connection between the two runs deeper than that.


David’s prayer is reprinted as Psalm 18, with a few minor variations to make it more generic. Tradition teaches us that King David did this as a gift for the Jewish People, providing those who have gone through the same turmoil that he did with words to expression the emotions that they might not be able to find for themselves. The Song of the Sea opens with the well-known phrase “Thus sang Moses and the Children of Israel this song to the Lord (Ex. 15:1).” What is less well known is that this phrase can also be translated as “Thus will sing Moses and the Children of Israel this song to the Lord.” This alternate reading, like David’s transformation of II Samuel 22 into Psalm 18, changes the song from a one-time expression of gratitude into a prescription for future generations for when they need to praise God.


On Passover we celebrate both our freedom from slavery and our birth as a nation, but with this celebration must come the question of what we are doing with this freedom. This freedom is but one of the many gifts we have each been given, both as individuals and as a nation, both by God and by those that have come before us. If we, both as individuals and as a nation, do not make use of our freedom to explore these other gifts of culture, religion, and personal ability and expression, then we are letting God’s gift of freedom go to waste.

Commentary for Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed Pesach

14 Apr

On Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed we read the story of Moses pleading to God on behalf of the Israelites to not wipe them out after the sin of the golden calf. During this discussion Moses famously asks God to “let me behold Your presence (Ex. 33:18).” God responds by allowing Moses to see… something. What Moses actually sees is a tricky theological question. The text says that Moses sees God’s “back,” and also talks about God’s “face” and “hand,” but if God is infinite and limitless then there should be no way to distinguish between any of these parts, and even the idea that God has a humanoid body is only just human anthropomorphizing of God to make God easier for us to understand.


One of the stranger Midrashes about what Moses saw says that Moses saw the knot at the back of the headpiece of God’s tefillin. Ignoring the above theological issues relating to God having a head and arm on which to lay tefillin, this opens up the question of what is written in God’s tefillin.


Our tefillin contain the first two paragraphs of the Shema, as well as two sequential passages that appear in the Torah between the time that the Israelites depart Egypt and Pharaoh changing his mind about letting them go. These passages (Ex. 13:1-10 and 11-16) are read on the first day of Chol HaMo’ed of Passover, and are from where we derive many of the mitzvot and customs of tefillin. One of these is that the tefillin should be worn on the wearer’s weaker arm, which Kli Yakar connects to the idea of God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” that brought us out of Egypt- something we could not possibly have done by ourselves.


Just as our tefillin praise God, it turns out that God’s tefillin contain some praise for us. Specifically, according to the Talmud (Berachot 6a), the verse “Who is like My people Israel (I Chronicles 17:21)?” Other commentators make use of the symbolism of the knots of the tefillin, including the knot at the back of the headpiece that God showed to Moses, as demonstrating that God and the Jewish People have chosen to tie themselves to each other. This connection mirrors that of the two pieces of tefillin: though they are separate pieces, they are both essential to the functionality of the whole. For this reason, although God’s presence is not always apparent to us, God will always be there when we are looking. Or, as Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid put it in his famous hymn Anim Zmirot (also the place the most people are likely to first come across the idea of God’s tefillin, “His tefillin-splendor is upon me and my tefillin-splendor is upon Him, and He is near to me when I call to Him.”

Commentary for Passover

10 Apr

In Judaism, holiness is marked by difference. To show something is holy we treat it differently, either by treating it with extra respect or by only using it at special designated times. On holy days we act differently than we normally would, either by performing specific actions we otherwise wouldn’t or by refraining from performing certain actions that we would perform if the day were not so holy.   The entire concept of the Passover seder is structured around answering the question posed at the beginning of the story: “why is this night different from all other nights?”

So at what point does the Passover seder become different from all other nights? The holiday Kiddush helps make the night different from a regular night, but we say Kiddush on every holiday, so saying Kiddush with the proper insertions for Passover is no surprise. Next we wash our hands without saying a blessing. While this might seem different because we usually say Kiddush then wash our hands with a blessing and then say Mozti, it is actually quite normal, as we often wash our hands before eating, but if we are not going to say Motzi, we don’t say a blessing when we do it.   Because we have several more steps to get through (and some food to eat) before we get to Motzi, it is no surprise that we would wash our hands without saying a blessing.

The next step in the seder is Karpas, where we eat a green vegetable (usually parsley or celery) dipped in saltwater. Eating a vegetable in and of itself is not unusual, but where things become different is when we dip the Karpas in saltwater before eating it. If “on all other nights we don’t dip [our food] even one time,” then the first time that we dip our food is clearly a point of differentiation between this night and all others.

Karpas is perhaps the most overlooked step in the seder. It is often glossed over with simple explanations such as the green vegetable representing the springtime and the saltwater representing our tears during our slavery in Egypt, but the true meaning of dipping our Karpas in saltwater is much deeper than that.

The word Karpas actually has nothing to do with vegetables. It actually means a fine white fabric (Ester 1:6). The association with vegetables began when the rabbis were looking for a food to dip in saltwater to symbolize this fabric and picked a green vegetable because the word “karpas” sounds like the Persian word “karafs,” which means “a plant of which salad is made” and sounds even more like the Greek word “karpos,” meaning “‘fruit’” of the land (or river)” “Fruit of the land” is the literal translation of the Hebrew word for vegetables and is found in the blessing we say over them, so the rabbis chose a green vegetable to represent the “karpas” because the similar-sounding words would help people to form a connection between the fabric being symbolized and the vegetable they were dipping in saltwater.

The connection between fine fabric and Passover comes from the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery they ripped his fancy coat off. The brothers then dipped the coat in the blood of a goat to fool their father Jacob into believing that Joseph had died, while in reality Joseph was en route to becoming the first Jewish slave in Egypt.

Karpas, representing the beginning of Jewish slavery in Egypt, is a very appropriate place to begin part of the night that is unique to Passover, but there is one more important connection between Joseph and the theme of the night. Passover is not only about our times as slaves, but about God bringing us out of Egypt and back to the Land of Israel, as was promised to Abraham. On his deathbed Joseph gathers his brothers around him and asks them to swear to him that when God returns the Israelites to the Land of Israel that his bones be taken with them and buried there (Gen. 50:24-25). Although many generations have passed, when God does finally fulfill the promise made to Abraham to liberate his descendents from their bondage, Moses makes sure to fulfill the promise that Joseph’s brothers made to him (Ex. 13:19).

The difference in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers at the end of his life compared to their youth is obviously quite striking. To go from selling someone into slavery to solemnly vowing to fulfill that person’s dying wishes to bring him comfort on his deathbed is a pretty extraordinary change. Interestingly, this change is also symbolized by the contrast of the two times at which we dip during the seder. The first time we dip is Karpas, when we dip our green vegetable into saltwater. The green vegetable on its own is perfectly palatable, but we add saltwater to it in an act designed to symbolize our sadness and make the taste less pleasant. Similarly, Joseph’s life was going along swimmingly until his brothers decided to sell him into slavery. The second time we dip at the seder is when we dip the bitter herb into charoset.   The bitter herb is obviously intended to not taste very good, but we add sweet charoset to make the bitter pill easier to swallow. When Joseph is entering the difficult period as he nears the end of his life, his brothers are there to comfort him and make life a little bit easier- and similarly, when their descendants were enslaved in Egypt, they all banded to together to make life a little bit easier, as symbolized by the small amount of charoset that we put on the bitter herb to make the difficult times slightly easier to bear.

Commentary for Tsaz

10 Apr

This week’s parshah deals with the details of various sacrifices, general priestly tasks, and, finally, the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as the priests. It starts off by detailing the procedure for removing the ashes of the previous day’s offering from the altar, but in the middle of these instructions takes a seemingly odd detour to talk about the priestly vestments. The priestly vestments were already covered back in Exodus 28:40-43, so why are they being brought up again now, with no new detail added?


Rashi points out that the word use for “his tunic”- “mido” can also mean “his measure,” and teaches us that each priest’s garments should be fitted specifically for him. Obviously this serves many practical purposes. We don’t want their sleeves to be too long and cover their hands and get in the way when they perform a sacrifice and we don’t want their tunics to be so long that they might accidentally step on them and trip themselves or each other. It also makes sense that we would want the officials performing our sacrifices to look nice and professional, showing a respect for both the important office they hold and for the Lord our God whom they serve. But there is also a deeper significance to this detail, which is why it is brought up here at this point.


Each priest is measured and fitted for his own robes. They’re not hanging on a rack in the Tabernacle divided into smalls, mediums, and larges. Everyone brings his own robes, specifically fitted to him. You can’t pass your robe off to your friend because it won’t fit him right. There is no saying “God doesn’t care who does this job as long as it gets done by someone.”   God specifically wants each individual priest. This point is brought up as God is having Moses begin to give the priests the specific instructions for performing their duties, which they will begin at the end of this parshah as they are inaugurated to remind them that they should not shirk from their duties. They have been given the task of helping others form their relationship with God, and for this high calling God is counting on each and every one of them individually.


This same ethos can be applied today to our own duty to form a relationship with God. This is not something that someone else can do for us. It is something that we ourselves must do, and which God wants each and every single one of us to do. It is not a responsibility that we can afford to shirk from.


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.