Tag Archives: Best of Reprint

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 Tazria-Metzora

3 May

In both parts of this week’s double parshah we learn about the skin disease Tzara’at. Tzara’at is seen in Rabbinic literature as being a spiritual punishment more so than a naturally occurring disease. The sin with which Tzara’at is almost always identified is Lashon Hara (literally translated as the “evil tongue” but often taken to mean gossip and/or slander) due to the events of Numbers 12, where Miriam contracts the disease after engaging in Lashon Hara regarding Moses. Reish Lakish makes a further connection, noting that the term for someone who has contracted Tzara’at, a “metzora,” can be seen as an abbreviation for “motzi shem ra” (“one who brings a bad name [to someone/something]) (Arachin 15b).

 

The process by which one is declared cured of Tzara’at is rather complicated, involving temporary exile from the camp, the shaving of body hair, the washing or burning of affected objects, and finally, once a priest has declared the physical symptoms gone, a strange ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest gets a mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson dye. The priest then takes two healthy kosher birds and sacrifices one of them. Then the priest mixes the blood of the sacrificed bird together with the crimson dye, the hyssop, and the cedar, and dips the second bird in the mixture. The priest then sprinkles the mixture over the head of the metzora and then sets the second bird, covered in the mixture, free. Then the metzora must again shave off all of his or her hair, both head and body, wash his or her clothes, bathe, and then he or she is considered to be cured.

 

The reason for the shaving was a practical one: it was required before ritual bathing so that one could reenter God’s service. The rest of the ceremony, though, seems to be rather random. What do birds have to do with anything, and what is the purpose of the dipping, or setting one of the birds free?

 

The Gemara in Arachin 15b tells us of a saying: “gossip kills three people: the one who says it, the one who receives it, and the one about whom it is said.” Once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. There is no way to know who has heard it and who has repeated it. It spreads, insidious and untraceable, throughout the world, and just like the bird that has been set free cannot be caught again, there is no way to undo the harm that the gossip has caused. The words we speak have an almost unlimited amount of power, and it is our responsibility to use God’s gift of language responsibly.

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.