Tag Archives: Kohen Gadol

Commentary for Emor

23 May

This week’s parshah contains many of the laws for the holidays. Among these is the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog bundle, which also includes the willow and the myrtle. Interestingly, despite being called by its Hebrew name “hadas” elsewhere in the Bible, the Torah here describes it as “anaf etz avot”– “the branch of a braided tree.” The Talmud in Sukkah 32b identifies this as the myrtle and explains that using three words to describe the branch in question when just one would have been sufficient teaches us that we need three myrtle branches in the bundle, but the use of the term “branch of a braided tree” has deeper implications as well.


The only other items in the entire Torah described as being “braided” are the golden chains used to attach the breastplate to the ephod- the special outer tunic- worn by the High Priest. In its commentary, Etz Chayim notes that the purpose of braiding the golden chains was to make them stronger so that they could hold up the breastplate, which was set with twelve precious stones to represent the twelve tribes.


There is a famous midrash that teaches that each of the four species waved on Sukkot represents a different kind of Jew. The myrtle, which has a smell but does not bear fruit, represents those who do mitzvot but do not study Torah, and is juxtaposed to the lulav, which bears fruit but has no taste, representing those who study Torah but do not perform mitzvot. After Sukkot is over, we tend to remove the lulav from our houses rather quickly, as all it will do is sit around and get moldy. The myrtle, on the other hand, we tend to keep around due to its pleasant fragrance.   Knowledge is important, but when not put to use it becomes fleeting and is eventually lost. Actions, on the other hand, stick with us, forming and strengthening connections in our minds. It’s easy to forget a fact but hard to break a habit. Just as the braided golden chains strengthened the physical connection between the High Priest and the breastplate with the stones that represented the people he served, so to does the lesson of the “branch of a braided tree” help us to strengthen our connection, both with Judaism and with others.


Commentary for Tetzaveh

7 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the  ceremony of the instillation of Aaron and his sons as the priests.  The Torah does not spare any details in describing both the preparation of Aaron and his sons and the nitty-gritty details of the ceremony and its related sacrifice.  Many modern readers have the tendency to tune out sections related to sacrifices, but to do so would be a mistake because every little bit of the Torah, even the space between the letters, is meant to teach us something.


As part of the ceremony, Moses is commanded to take some of the blood of the sacrifice and put it on the right thumbs, right toes, and the ridges of the right ears of Aaron and his sons.  There are two midrashim that comment on this odd choice of body parts.  The first comments that this is to teach us that in order to act as a representative of the people to God, a priest must walk among the people and must listen to them so that he understands them, and only then may he act on their behalf.  This is certainly an important lesson to learn in all generations, and might have been necessary to impart to Aaron’s sons in particular, about whose personalities we know very little, but Aaron has always been portrayed as being very in tune with the people, becoming a highly respected mediator because of his ability to comment and empathize with everyone.


A second midrash fills us in on what this ceremony provided for Aaron, and what it can teach us as well.  The Midrash Habiur teaches: “the ear that heard the words ‘you shall have no other god beside Me’ and then listened to the people’s demand for a calf; the hands which had pledged to serve God and the fashioned a calf; the feet that had climbed Mount Sinai and then hastened to do that which was wrong.” in the incident of the golden calf all had to be purged of their sin in order to be rededicated to serving God.


Over the generations, many commentators have tried to mitigate Aaron’s complicity in the sin of the golden calf, either by explaining his intentions in agreeing to build it or by saying he was afraid the people would kill him if he did not build it, but all commentaries acknowledge that, as the text says, Aaron played a central role in its construction.  Through this ceremony, God not only shows that He is forgiving Aaron for his misdeed, but God is also teaching us that forgiveness is not quite enough.


During the Ten Days of Repentance, we ask for forgiveness from our fellow man and from God, but recognizing our wrongdoings and asking for forgiveness is only the first step.  Part of atoning for our sins is doing our best to not make the same mistakes again and trying to instead channel the effort we put into sinning into doing positive things.  God does not just forgive Aaron for his role in the sin of the golden calf.  He also gives Aaron the chance to make up for his sin by using the same faculties that he used to sin to now serve God.