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Tazria-Metzora Learning from Tzara’at

This Shabbos we read the double Parsha of Tazria-Metzora.  The majority of these two parshiyot discuss tzara’at – a skin disease that is often translated at leprosy.  In fact tzara’at is not limited to the skin and it can also afflict clothing and one’s home. 

The Gemara (Arachin 16a) lists seven sins that result in tzara’at:

א“ר שמואל בר נחמני א”ר יוחנן על שבעה דברים נגעים באין: על לשון הרע, ועל שפיכות דמים, ועל שבועת שוא, ועל גילוי עריות, ועל גסות הרוח, ועל הגזל, ועל צרות העין 

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  There are seven reasons why infections [of the skin] come:  For speaking maliciously about someone, bloodshed, taking a false oath, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, thievery, and narrow-eyedness [or narrow vision].   

However, it is most commonly assumed that tzara’at results form speaking lashon ha-ra.

I heard a beautiful idea about tzara’at in the name of Rabbi Nissan Alpert (1928-1986, Poland and New York), a close student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University.  He observes that the Torah introduces the topic of tzara’at by stating (Vayikra 13:2):

אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֙חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־

אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּהֲנִֽים׃

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.

The use of the word Adam (person) is unusual.  Typically the Torah would use the word איש ish.  Rabbi Alpert quotes the Zohar which notes of the four words the Torah uses for man – אדם, איש, גבר, אנוש (Adam, Ish, Gever, Enosh – the term Adam is the most exalted.  Why is this person who has committed a severe sin described as adam?

Furthermore, the use of the very והובא (vehuva) which is best translated as “shall be brought.”  The person afflicted with tzara’at is brought to the Kohen to receive a diagnosis.  Why is the verb in the passive tense rather than say that a person afflicted with tzara’at should go to to a Kohen to get a diagnosis?  The Ibn Ezra explains that the this form of the verb indicates that the person must be seen by the Kohen

ברצונו ושלא ברצונו כי הרואה בו אחד מסימנים אלו יכריחנו שיבא:

By his consent or against his will, for one who sees one of these signsOn someone’s body. will force the afflicted [to go to the kohen ].

We assume that the greatness of a person is based on their faults – the fewer faults, the greater the person.  But this assumption is wrong.  As we find in Kohelet (7:20)

כִּ֣י אָדָ֔ם אֵ֥ין צַדִּ֖יק בָּאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲשֶׂה־טּ֖וֹב וְלֹ֥א יֶחֱטָֽא

For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err.

Rather a great person is someone who recognizes that they have faults and wants to improve.  The Torah uses the term adam to indicate that the mark of a great person is that if they are afflicted with tzara’at they willingly go to a Kohen to learn what they did wrong and how they can remedy the situation.  A person willing to put themselves in the potentially embarrassing situation of pointing out their faults to a religious authority is a truly great person.  Rabbi Alpert explains that this might be why the Torah does not provide a reason that people were stricken with tzara’at.  Ultimately, we are not as concerned with what was done in the person but with a person’s desire to improve themselves.

This insight of Rabbi Alpert explains another curious detail in our parsha.  Once a person is confirmed to have tzara’at, the Torah instructs (Vayikra 13:45):

וְהַצָּר֜וּעַ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֣וֹ הַנֶּ֗גַע בְּגָדָ֞יו יִהְי֤וּ פְרֻמִים֙ וְרֹאשׁוֹ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה פָר֔וּעַ וְעַל־שָׂפָ֖ם יַעְטֶ֑ה וְטָמֵ֥א ׀ טָמֵ֖א יִקְרָֽא׃

As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!”

The gemara in Moed Katan (5a) gives two reasons why the person must call out that they are impure.  One reason is so that others others will hear of their distress and pray for mercy.  The second reason is to warn others of their status so the disease will not be transmitted to them.  The common denominator of both of these explanations is that the person with tzara’at must make his/her status known to others.  It’s as if the Torah is forcing a reconciliation with their status so that they can reflect on what they did and improve themselves.

The lesson for us is obvious.  Though we no longer experience tzara’at, we must embrace the message that it is foolish to think we are without faults.  We must be able to recognize our faults shortcomings and seek the guidance of friends and teachers who can help us to improve.

Shemini – A Curious Detail in the Story of Nadav and Avihu

Pashat Shemini describes the tragic death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.  Much has been written about this story and the lessons that it teaches.  I’d like to focus on a rather curious detail that is often overlooked in this episode.  After we are told of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths for having offered a “strange fire before God which HE had not commanded” (Vayikra 10:1), Moshe attempts to comfort his older brother:

 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.  

Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Vayikra 10:3)

After which we read that Moshe seems to take the lead in burying Nadav and Avihu

 וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-מִישָׁאֵל וְאֶל אֶלְצָפָן, בְּנֵי עֻזִּיאֵל, דֹּד אַהֲרֹן; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, קִרְבוּ שְׂאוּ אֶת-אֲחֵיכֶם מֵאֵת פְּנֵי-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, אֶל-מִחוּץ, לַמַּחֲנֶה. 

And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’ 

Moshe tasks his cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan.  But the Torah’s description of the relationship is rather strange.  Mishael and Elzaphan are not identified as Moshe’s cousins, or Aaron’s cousin but rather as the sons of Aaron’s uncle.  One question that emerges is Uzziel was Moshe’s uncle as well as Aaron’s; so why is he identified specifically as Aaron’s uncle?  Secondly, as Rashi notes, the Torah has already identified Uzziel as Amram’s brother (and by extension Aaron’s and Moshe’s uncle) in Shemot 6:18 –

וּבְנֵ֣י קְהָ֔ת עַמְרָ֣ם וְיִצְהָ֔ר וְחֶבְר֖וֹן וְעֻזִּיאֵ֑ל וּשְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י קְהָ֔ת שָׁלֹ֧שׁ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֛ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה׃

The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel; and the span of Kohath’s life was 133 years.

Why then does the Torah repeat the relationship now, in Sefer Vayikra?

One approach is that the Torah comes to teach a practical, halachic lesson.  Although kohanim are normally allowed to become tameh (impure) for the seven closest relatives for whom we sit Shiva, there are those who maintain that a Kohen who is “on duty” to perform the service in the Temple is not allowed to become impure in such situations.  Since Aharon and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, were “on duty” they could not bury Nadav and Avihu.  The task therefore fell to the closest eligible relatives.  In this approach, Uzziel is identified specifically as Aaron’s uncle rather than Moshe’s to show that Mishael and Elzaphan were acting on behalf of Aaron.  It is further understood that we are told that Uzziel is Aaron’s uncle to emphasize that while they were related, they were Levi’im and not Kohanim and thus there was no question about their ability to participate in the burial.

While the above explanation brought in the Da’at Zekeinim and elsewhere, it does not explain why it was specifically Mishael and Elzaphan as the children of Uzziel who were selected for the task.  There is a Midrashic tradition that says in addition to the familial relationship, Aaron and Uzziel shared an essential character trait.

ממשמע שנאמר ‘ובני קהת עמרם ויצהר וחברון ועוזיאל’, איני יודע שעוזיאל דוד אהרן? מה תלמוד לומר דוד אהרן? מקיש מעשה עוזיאל למעשה אהרן, מה אהרן רודף שלום בישראל אף עוזיאל רודף שלום בישראל… “.

When it says “the sons of Kohat: Amram, Yitzhar, Hebron and Uzziel” do I not know that Uzziel was Aaron’s uncle?  Why then does the Torah state “the uncle of Aaron”?  Rather the deeds of Uzziel are connected to the deeds of Aaron – Just as Aaron pursued peace among the Jewish people, so did Uzziel pursue peace among the Jewish people.

Aaron was famously known as a רודף שלום (pursuer of peace) who would seek to make peace between people who were in a fight.  Apparently, Aaron learned this from his uncle Uzziel, who according to the Midrash did the same thing.  According to this approach, the Torah emphasizes Aaron’s relationship to Uzziel because of the shared character trait.

A final explanation of our pasuk says that the word דד, which until this point we’ve translated as uncle, has a second meaning.  It can also mean “friend” or beloved as in the word ידיד, or as we read of the דד throughout Shir ha-Shirim over Pesach.  The Netziv thus writes that Aaron and Uzziel had a special relationship.  Moshe saw that because of this special relationship Mishael and Elzaphan were especially happy at the beginning of the day when Aaron and his children dedicated the Mishkan.   Moshe knew that they would certainly feel Aaron’s pain at the loss of his two sons.  According to this understanding, Aaron would be comforted knowing that people who cared deeply about him and shared his pain were the ones taking care of the burial.

The Torah’s emphasis on the relationship between Aaron and Uzziel comes to teach an important lesson for communal life.  It is vital that we be able to share the joy and celebrate the accomplishments of others and to be able to feel their pain.  This Shabbos begins the weekly study of a chaprter of Pirkei Avot leading up to Shavuot.  One reason that we study Pirkei Avot in anticipation of receiving the Torah is that Pirkei Avot emphasizes our interpersonal relationships which are a prerequisite for proper Torah observance.  The mention of Uzziel, Aaron’s uncle, in our parsha thus serves as a strong reminder of this crucial lesson.

Yizkor and Making Seder

I recently finished a remarkable book – Miriam’s Kitchen, a memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich which focuses on the author’s quest to learn the traditional recipes of her mother-in-law, Miriam.

In it she describes the Sedarim of her youth.

Gathered at her grandmother’s home in Brooklyn, Ehrlich recalls:

At the head of the table, may father, impressive in his high black skullcap, resembling an Eastern Orthodox bishop, performed the Passover recounting, the Haggadah, in rapid, rusty musical Hebrew.
We followed the English in our Haggadah pamphlets, the ones distributed gratis by Maxwell House.  I, enrolled in Hebrew school, could sing the four questions in Hebrew.  My cousins, Selina’s children, in their miniature prep school blazers and gray slacks, read them in the English, since they were being raised with no religion…
“Let’s go Edward,” spurred my grandmother.  She had been cooking, cleaning and changing dishes for days with my mother’s help, and didn’t want the roast chicken to dry up. 
My father would charge through the Haggadah, reading ahead from right to left, letting his mind become a vessel of subconscious memory to recover the Hebrew studied until his thirteenth birthday, to embrace the tune, the cadence.  He did recover it through force of mind.  His voice enfolded us like smoke.
At points, he paused, performing the rituals as his father had, or as close as could be remember.  He was transformed in the Seder to teacher or priest, to Someone Who Knew, to the keeper of mysteries, serious things.  I was transformed by the Seder, by candles and silver and ancient language ad melody, and incantatory realization that this was my birthright, this belonged to me.  (206-207).

I’m sure that we all have memories of Sedarim from our youth, gathered with the extended family and at some point among all the chaos, coming to the same realization – this is my birthright.  This belonged to me.

Pesach is defined by the Seder.  The Sefat Emet brings an amazing idea in the name of his grandfather, the Chidushei haRim (R. Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1799-1866), the first Gurer Rebbe.  The Chidushei haRim notes the translation of the word Seder is order.  He says that participating in a Seder each year helps us to make order of the miraculous events of the Exodus.  “Each year as we fulfill the mitzvos of the Seder, analyzing the Exodus and singing Hashem’s praises, we are given an opportunity to relive evnes which we were too pressed to appreciate as they occurred.  Thus, far from being a mere replay of the same rituals year after year, each successive Seder adds meaning to the original events and brings us closer to the appreciation of Hashems’ power needed to bring about the Final Redemption….

The final redemption cannot take place until the meaning of the Exodus is fully understood by the Jewish people.  By finding new meaning in the story of the Exodus each year, we given an order to our understanding of that first night of our freedom to exist as a nation, and bring the arrival of Moshiach and the final redemption that much closer”  (R. Yosef Stern, The Pesach Haggadah with Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes 15-16). 

Returning to Elizabeth Ehrlich’s Sedarim as a girl in Brooklyn, she shares one more memory that struck a chord with me.  As the family inched closer and closer Shulchan orech, the final step of course, is to eat the maror which is dipped in charoset.  The explanation of the charoset is that it symbolizes the mortar with which the slaves toiled under the cruel sun.  And in one magical moment she writes:

“’We built the pyramids!’ I breathlessly discovered.  From then on, history was personal.”

If the Pesach seder is our annual invitation to make order of the story of the Jewish master story and to forge our own connection and links in the chain, then Yizkor then Yizkor is a more personal Seder.  We recite yizkor on each Yom Tov as a way not only to remember our loved ones, but as a chance to reflect on the lessons and values that they instilled in us.  The birthright that is ours because of them. 

This Pesach marks the second one in which we are gathering for a virtual Yizkor.  Thank God, we are able to gather together at shul this year and recite Yizkor at its “proper time” but it is a mixed blessing knowing that our kehillah is not whole until everyone is able to safely and comfortably return to shul.  And so we recite yizkor tonight and remember our family and friends who are no longer with us, but whose continued presence in our lives enables us to create Seder, order and find meaning in all that we do.

Pidyon ha-Ben and Pesach

On Thursday I had the privilege of making a siyum on Masechet Pesachim.  The masechet ends with a seemingly strange discussion about pidyon ha-ben (redeeming the firstborn son).  Rabbi Simlai was in attendance at a pidyon ha-ben ceremony and was asked whether the father should recite the she-hechiyanu blessing or if the bracha should be said by the Cohen. 

רַבִּי שִׂמְלַאי אִיקְּלַע לְפִדְיוֹן הַבֵּן, בְּעוֹ מִינֵּיהּ: פְּשִׁיטָא עַל פִּדְיוֹן הַבֵּן ״אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל פִּדְיוֹן הַבֵּן״ — אֲבִי הַבֵּן מְבָרֵךְ. ״בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁהֶחֱיָינוּ וְקִיְּימָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה״, כֹּהֵן מְבָרֵךְ, אוֹ אֲבִי הַבֵּן מְבָרֵךְ?

Rabbi Simlai attended a redemption of the firstborn son. The celebrants raised a dilemma before him: It is obvious that the blessing over the redemption of a firstborn son, which is: Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us over the redemption of the firstborn son, is certainly recited by the father of the son,;  Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has given us life [sheheḥeyanu], sustained us, and brought us to this time, does the priest recite this blessing, or does the father of the son recite it?

The gemara then provides the logic for both possibilities.  We might think that the Kohen should say the bracha since he benefits from the ceremony in that he receives five selas of silver.  We might also think that the father should recite the bracha since it is his mitzvah.    As an interesting sidenote, it is interesting to note the two competing emotions in this situation.  The she-hechiyanu is a bracha that expresses joy and happiness.  We might ask ourselves if our true joy and happiness is rooted in our financial and material gains or in our spiritual gains.

The gemara concludes that Rabbi Simlai did not know the answer and went to consult with the scholars in the local beit midrash.  They told him that the father should say the bracha, and this is in fact the halacha.

This seems like  a rather odd way to end Masechet Pesachim which focuses on the details of Pesach.  However, I think that there is a deep connection between Pesach and pidyon ha-ben.  First, there is an obvious connection between the story of Pesach and pidyon ha-ben.  The final of the ten plagues was the killing of the Egyptian firstborns.  And this stands in stark contrast to Hashem’s identifying B’nei Yisrael as His bechor.  In Shemot 4:22 we read:

(כב) וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר ה’ בְּנִ֥י בְכֹרִ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is My first-born son.

Hashem’s saving the Jewish people from Egypt can thus be seen as a type of pidyon ha-ben, a redemption of the first born.

The idea of pidyon ha-ben is quite radical when we think about it.  We are told that the child is born with a certain level of kedusha (holiness).  In the same breath we are told that we have the power to transfer that holiness to the coins so that the child can be a “normal kid” without the added responsibilities and strictures associated with the kedusha with which he was born.  We may extrapolate this to say that we are able to assert some control in the realm of kedusha and spirituality.  We truly are partners with God.  While the idea of being partners with God is a  major theme in Judaism, there is a Gemara from earlier in Pesachim that beautifully expresses this idea. 

Rabbi Yossi asserts that there are two items/phenomena that thought of creating on Erev Shabbat during creation, but that were not actually created until the conclusion of Shabbat – fire and a mule.  He continues:

וּבְמוֹצָאֵי שַׁבָּת נָתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא דֵּיעָה בְּאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן מֵעֵין דּוּגְמָא שֶׁל מַעְלָה, וְהֵבִיא שְׁנֵי אֲבָנִים וּטְחָנָן זוֹ בָּזוֹ, וְיָצָא מֵהֶן אוּר, וְהֵבִיא שְׁתֵּי בְהֵמוֹת וְהִרְכִּיב זוֹ בָּזוֹ וְיָצָא מֵהֶן פֶּרֶד.

At the conclusion of Shabbat, the Holy One, Blessed be He, granted Adam, the first man, creative knowledge similar to divine knowledge, and he brought two rocks and rubbed them against each other, and the first fire emerged from them. Adam also brought two animals, a female horse and a male donkey, and mated them with each other, and the resultant offspring that emerged from them was a mule.

Others disagree with Rabbi Yosse and maintain that fire and mules were in fact created on Erev Shabbat.  The Maharsha explains that the two positions are not in conflict.  The Koren Talmud summarizes his explanation:

The intention to create these things existed prior to Shabbat inasmuch as their potential had already been created.  The stones that sparked the first fire, as well as the animals from which the first mule was sired, were both already in existence.  By making use of these materials, Adam succeeded in fulfilling God’s original intention.

Just as Adam partnered with God in realizing the potential and original plan of creation, we partner with God in bringing kedusha into the world.  Pidyon ha-ben is the ultimate expression of this idea.

One final idea of how pidyon ha-ben connects with Pesach comes from a beautiful article written by Rabbi David Bashevkin.  He says that the Gemara’s discussion of  pidyon ha-ben should direct us back to childhood.  And what’s true for us as individuals is true for the Jewish people as a whole:

“A nation, like a child, is born with all of the potential for greatness, a potential that is never lost or dimmed. That’s why, the Talmud explains, in each and every generation all of us must view ourselves as though we personally had left Egypt. It’s a crucial reminder that while individuals are born and live and die, the Jewish nation is constantly reconstituting itself, beginning anew in each generation, always constantly beginning, always full of fresh hope and possibility.”

As we gather for the Pesach seder we focus on the birth of the Jewish people as a nation, and we forge our own connections to that incredible and still unfolding story.  May we all have a wonderful and transformative Pesach!

Vayikra – Voluntary Sacrifices

Parshat Vayikra begins to describe the various sacrifices that were brought in the Mishkan.  The first three chapters of Sefer Vayikra discuss different types of voluntary offerings that were brought.    The first one is the korban olahor elevation offering.  It is introduced with the following pasuk (Vayikra 1:3):

אִם־עֹלָ֤ה קָרְבָּנוֹ֙ מִן־הַבָּקָ֔ר זָכָ֥ר תָּמִ֖ים יַקְרִיבֶ֑נּוּ אֶל־פֶּ֝תַח אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ יַקְרִ֣יב אֹת֔וֹ לִרְצֹנ֖וֹ לִפְנֵ֥י ה’׃

 if one’s offering is an elevation-offering from the cattle, he shall offer an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, voluntarily (li-retzono) before Hashem.  

The word  לרצונו li-retzono is not mentioned in any of the subsequent descriptions of other animals that may be offered as voluntary olahofferings and is the source of much discussion among the commentaries.  Most understand that li-retzonomeans for the favor or the good will of the person offering the sacrifice.  For example, Onkelos translates it as “he should offer it for his acceptance before Hashem.”  The Rashbam, on the other hand, understands that the word refers to the animal –

אם זכר תמים יקריבנו ולפתח אוהל מועד אז יהיה לו לרצון.

If he will offer a male without blemish and bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting, then it – i.e, the animal being offered – will be acceptable…

Finally, Nechama Leibowitz cites a number of commentators who explain it means for Hashem’s ratzon – that it should be pleasing to God.   

While the subject of the word ratzon remains ambiguous, its significance in the broader context of Sefer Vayikra is clear.  The Abravanel writes that the Torah’s use of the word here – at the very beginning of the parsha is significant.  The word ratzonemphasizes that the first sacrifice described by the Torah is a voluntary offering, brought of the free volition and choice of the individual bringing it.  Similarly, the Malbim explains that the sacrifice should be offered willingly and intentionally – not as an obligation, which is inconsistent with free choice.  The Torah thus sets the stage for its description of all the voluntary korbanot by emphasizing the fact that they must be offered be-ratzon– brought of the free will and volition of the individual, in a manner that is pleasing to God.   

But how does one assure that his/her sacrifice will be acceptable to God and help the person offering it find favor in Hashem’s eyes?  The Sforno offers a beautiful insight to answer this question.  The Torah introduces the section with the korban olah by saying (Vayikra 1:2)

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן לַֽה’ מִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה מִן־הַבָּקָר֙ וּמִן־הַצֹּ֔אן תַּקְרִ֖יבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶֽם׃

Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the LORD, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.

The use of the word adam (person) is unusual. 

The Sforno writes that we should read the verse as “When a person offers a sacrifice it should be of your very selves (me’atzmechem). אדם כי יקריב מכם כי יקריב מעצמכם.   That is to say, the success of the sacrifice is not dependent on which animal or other possession we offer but rather how much of ourselves we put into it.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elaborates on this point.  He explains that the proper definition of the word used for korban (sacrifice) comes from the Hebrew word karov.  The sacrifices are a way for humans to draw near to God.  We do this by showing our desire and willingness to surrender to God’s will.  Although we no longer have the sacrifices, we still have the capacity to come close to God through our performance of mitzvoth and our willingness to surrender to Hashem’s will.  

Vayakhel-Pekudei: The Purpose of the Mishkan and of our Shuls

This week we read the double parsha of Vayakhel-Pekudei as well as the special maftir for Shabbat haChodesh.  Vayakhel-Pekudei concludes the Torah’s extended discussion of the Mishkan in which we have been immersed for the past several weeks.  The Mishkan was the predecessor of the Beit ha-Mikdash which in turn serves as the model for our synagogues which are referred to a מקדש מעט (miniature Temple).   We are now a year into the COVID pandemic which has forced a radical transformation of our shul experience.  As the vaccine rollout continues and there is now real hope of the pandemic coming to an end, I would like to use this d’var Torah to explore the purpose of the Mishkan and what the implications might be for us as we consider our shul experience. 

The Ramban (Shemot 25:1) writes that the purpose of the Mishkan was to continue the experience of Revelation at Har Sinai:

וסוד המשכן הוא, שיהיה הכבוד אשר שכן על הר סיני שוכן עליו בנסתר

And the secret of the tabernacle is that the glory of God that dwelt on Mount Sinai, [also] hiddenly dwells upon it.

For the Ramban, the Mishkan was built in order “that [God] should have a house among [B’nei Yisrael] that would be dedicated to His Name – and there He would speak with Moshe and continue to command the Children of Israel.”  Given this understanding of the Mishkan, the Ramban maintains that the most important element of the Mishkan was the Aron (Ark).  The Ark was covered by the kaporet and the Cheruvim, and God communicated to Moshe from there.

והנה עקר החפץ במשכן הוא מקום מנוחת השכינה שהוא הארון,

the main object in the tabernacle is the place that the Divine presence would rest, which is the ark.

In I Kings (8:9) we read

אֵ֚ין בָּֽאָר֔וֹן רַ֗ק שְׁנֵי֙ לֻח֣וֹת הָאֲבָנִ֔ים

There was nothing in the Ark but the two tablets of stone…

In other words, the Ark represents the word of God both as the locus of Hashem’s revelation and as the vessel which contains the Torah.

The Rambam has a different understanding of the Mishkan.  In his introduction to הלכות בית הבחירה (Laws of the Chosen Temple) he writes:

מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה לַעֲשׂוֹת בַּיִת לַה’ מוּכָן לִהְיוֹת מַקְרִיבִים בּוֹ הַקָּרְבָּנוֹת. וְחוֹגְגִין אֵלָיו שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כה ח) “וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ”. וּכְבָר נִתְפָּרֵשׁ בַּתּוֹרָה מִשְׁכָּן שֶׁעָשָׂה משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ. וְהָיָה לְפִי שָׁעָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים יב ט) “כִּי לֹא בָאתֶם עַד עָתָּה” וְגוֹ’:

(1) It is a positive obligation to build a house for God where offerings may be brought and to make pilgrimage to it three times a year as it says “and they shall make Me a sanctuary.” The tabernacle which Moses made in the desert has already been described in the Torah, but it was a temporary measure, as it says “for you have not yet reached, etc.”

For the Rambam, the central feature of the Mishkan is the מזבח or altar where the sacrifices were offered.   

For the Rambam, the essential purpose of the Mishkan would be עבודה, or service.  While the Temple stood this was done via the offering of sacrifices.  In our day, עבודה  is done by prayer which is called עבודה שבלב (services of the heart).   Ramban, on the other hand emphasizes communication with and experience of God.  We might describe the Ramban’s emphasis as being on spirituality.

There is a third understanding of the Mishkan which is alluded to in the opening verse of this week’s Parsha (Shemot 35:1):

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃

 Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do:

The verb ויקהל has the root of קהל or assembly.  It is the same root found in the mitzvah of Hakhel described in Devarim 31:12-13.  During this ceremony, performed every seven years, the entire nation would gather to hear the king read from passages of the Torah.  It was a way of reaffirming our national mission while reconnecting with the Torah by reenacting the Revelation at Sinai.  In describing the mitzvah of Hakhel we are told:

הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת־הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ

Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities

The act of assembly associated with the Torah must include the ENTIRE community – men, women, children stranger, etc.  Interestingly, the notion of קהל is connected with the giving of the Torah throughout Sefer Devarim.  In 18:16, Moshe refers to the day on which the Torah was given as יום הקהל (the day of the Assembly). 

Rabbi Haim Sabato writes:

Whenever the Israelites confirm their acceptance of the Torah, they do so collectively – men, women and children.  This is because the entire People of Israel entered the Covenant and accepted the Torah together…

Now we can understand why the commandment to build the Tabernacle is also given when the people have assemble.  We have noted noted the Ramban’s understanding of the Tabernacle as a continuation of Sinai; while the Giving of the Torah at Sinai was a singular event, the Tabernacle is meant to serve as God’s eternal dwelling among us us.  Accordingly, the mitzva should be given to the people as a whole.  (Rest for the Dove.  Vayakhel “May He Establish His Handiwork for Us”).

The emphasis on the assembly through the root קהל points to a third critical function of the Mishkan and by extension of our synagogues.  The Mishkan was a community center.  It was quite literally placed in the center of the Israelite camp as they travelled through the desert.  For many people, shul is the ultimate community center.  It is a place to connect with friends and neighbors.  The most important feature of shul for many Jews is not necessarily the davening or the Rabbi’s drasha, but it is the kidush and opportunity to schmooze in the hall (never in the sanctuary during davening).

Our short analysis of the Mishkan shows three essential functions that it plays.  The Mishkan was a place to experience God’s presence and to communicate with God through the Torah.  By extension, our shuls are places of spirituality where we can connect with God and the Torah.  The Mishkan was also a place of avodah or service of God.  Our shuls certainly continue this function through prayer.  Finally, the Mishkan was defined by Kahal – the entire community.  Our shuls are certainly community centers where we are able to socialize with our friends and connect with the Jewish people. 

It is certainly true that our shul experience combines all of these features and functions.  Yet as we consider how that experience has been altered this past year and what we would like for it to be moving forward, I hope that we can use the model of the Mishkan to identify which shul function most resonates with us. 

Ki Tisa — One Year In: Toward Growth and Intimacy

Parshat Ki Tisa marks the one year anniversary of when our world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was on Shabbat of Ki Tisa that we made the painful decision to close the shul and suspend all in-person activities.  While there have been many positive developments with the roll out of the vaccine, it is still anyone’s guess as to when things might return to some semblance of normal.  With this in mind, I want to share a thought from Parshat Ki Tisa.

Ki Tisa is a difficult parsha.  The main narrative event is the חטא העגל, the sin of the Golden Calf.  It is an incident that raises many questions.  After reading of this egregious sin, the Parsha tells of Moshe’s pleas with Hashem on behalf of the nation.  After receiving assurance that Hashem will not destroy the entire people, Moshe descends Har Sinai in order to get the people to repent.  He smashes the luchot (tablets) to the ground and he throws the Golden Calf into the fire.   He rallies the Tribe of Levy to mete out God’s punishment and 3,000 men are killed.  At this point Moshe returns to Har Sinai and continues to petition God on behalf of the people.  Hashem agrees to forgive the people after which we read of Moshe’s continued interaction with Hashem in the Ohel Moed (tent of meeting) outside of the camp (Shemot 33:6-11).  At this point we read a rather shocking episode (Shemot 33:12-13):

(יב) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־ה’ רְ֠אֵה אַתָּ֞ה אֹמֵ֤ר אֵלַי֙ הַ֚עַל אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְאַתָּה֙ לֹ֣א הֽוֹדַעְתַּ֔נִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־תִּשְׁלַ֖ח עִמִּ֑י וְאַתָּ֤ה אָמַ֙רְתָּ֙ יְדַעְתִּ֣יךָֽ בְשֵׁ֔ם וְגַם־מָצָ֥אתָ חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינָֽי׃ (יג) וְעַתָּ֡ה אִם־נָא֩ מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֜ן בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ הוֹדִעֵ֤נִי נָא֙ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֔ךָ וְאֵדָ֣עֲךָ֔ לְמַ֥עַן אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ וּרְאֵ֕ה כִּ֥י עַמְּךָ֖ הַגּ֥וֹי הַזֶּֽה׃

(12) Moses said to the LORD, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’ (13) Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.”

Moshe makes an audacious request:  “Show me Your ways!”  Hashem agrees to Moshe’s request, but Moshe is not satisfied.  In verse 18 he asks for even more:

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ׃

He said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!”

The Gemara (Brachot 7a) says that Moshe had asked God to explain the problem of theodicy (why do bad things happen to good people).  Hashem does give an answer, though it is one that is not entirely satisfactory.

אָמַר לוֹ: מֹשֶׁה, צַדִּיק וְטוֹב לוֹ — צַדִּיק בֶּן צַדִּיק. צַדִּיק וְרַע לוֹ — צַדִּיק בֶּן רָשָׁע. רָשָׁע וְטוֹב לוֹ — רָשָׁע בֶּן צַדִּיק. רָשָׁע וְרַע לוֹ — רָשָׁע בֶּן רָשָׁע.

God said to him: Moses, the righteous person who prospers is a righteous person, the son of a righteous person, who is rewarded for the actions of his ancestors. The righteous person who suffers is a righteous person, the son of a wicked person, who is punished for the transgressions of his ancestors. The wicked person who prospers is a wicked person, the son of a righteous person, who is rewarded for the actions of his ancestors. The wicked person who suffers is a wicked person, the son of a wicked person.

Hashem then tells Moshe that there is a limit to how much Hashem can reveal, and that it is not possible for Moshe to see God’s face/countenance.  As a compromise, Hashem offers (33:22-23):

(כב) וְהָיָה֙ בַּעֲבֹ֣ר כְּבֹדִ֔י וְשַׂמְתִּ֖יךָ בְּנִקְרַ֣ת הַצּ֑וּר וְשַׂכֹּתִ֥י כַפִּ֛י עָלֶ֖יךָ עַד־עָבְרִֽי׃ (כג) וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ׃ (ס)

(22) and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. (23) Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

The Sefat Emet asks a sharp question:  Why does Moshe ask Hashem “show me Your glory” at this point?  After all, Moshe has had an ongoing relationship with Hashem and had not previously made such a request.  It’s only after the most grievous sin and the near destruction of B’nei Yisrael that Moshe asks.  It seems like an odd time to ask.  The Sefat Emet answers this question with an analogy from marriage.  In any marriage it is inevitable that there will be disagreements and fights.  If the couple is able to make up and restore their Shalom Bayis, they will often feel closer to each other than before.  Though no one wants to fight, a fight can lead greater closeness and intimacy.  The same is true with Moshe.  He sensed that once the nation had been forgiven and was back in a positive relationship with Hashem, it was an opportune time to seek a more intimate encounter with Hashem. 

Rabbi Yissocher Frand quote the Tolner Rebbe who points to another source that supports this idea.  The Tolner Rebbe points to the Rambam’s Peirush ha-Mishnayont  on Parah 3:3 in which he makes the radical assertion in connection to the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) ritual that someone who becomes tameh (impure) and goes through the purification process of the Parah Adumah attains a higher state of taharah (purity) than one who never became defiled.  A similar idea is expressed in the Brachot 34b

דְּאָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ: מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין

As Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where penitents stand, even the full-fledged righteous do not stand

The idea expressed in all three sources – our parsha, the Rambam’s description of the Parah Adumah, and the greatness of Ba’alei Teshuva – is one and the same.  It is often through struggles in life that we are able to grow as individuals and become more open to true connection and intimacy with others.  And I think that this is a message that we must take to heart this Shabbos, this year.  We are a year into the pandemic and there have been untold challenges and hardships.  Some of us have been affected directly by the virus or have loved ones who were.  Some of us have faced unprecedented financial challenges.  We have lost out on family gatherings, simchas, vacations.  Our children’s education has been radically altered and who knows what the long- term effect on their social and mental development will be.  We are all stressed, and anxious.  No one would ever wish for the crazy circumstances that we have lived through this past year.  Moshe shows us that we can use the difficult situations in life as opportunities for growth.  We can grow closer to our family, our friends and to Hashem if we are open to such growth.  The greatest challenges in life can pave the way to great intimacy and growth.

Good Shabbos.

Tetzaveh and Purim

From his birth in Parshat Shemot to his death in Ve-Zot ha-Bracha, Moshe is the most central figure in all of Chumash.  So much so, that this week’s Parsha, Tetzaveh is the only Parsha where Moshe’s name is not mentioned.  The most common explanation for this conspicuous absence is offered by the Ba’al ha-Turim.  He explains that originally Moshe was meant to be the Kohen Gadol in addition to the prophetic leader of the people.  However, after Moshe’s reluctance to accept Hashem’s mission at the burning bush, the kehunah(priesthood) was bestowed on Aaron.  The Ba’al ha-Turim writes that Moshe’s name is missing from the parsha in order to save Moshe the distress of seeing Aharon acquire the insignia of priesthood that should have been his own.   

Rabbi Sacks, z”l offers an alternative explanation to the absence of Moshe’s name.  He says that in stark contrast to Sefer Breishit – which is dominated by stories of competition among brothers:  Cane and Abel; Yitzcchak and Yishmael; Ya’akov and Esav; Yosef and his brothers – sefer Shemot offers a new paradigm.  The brotherly relationship of Moshe and Aharon.  Moshe and Aharon work together from the very beginning to lead B’nei Yisrael to freedom.  One does not envy the other.  They each possess different talents, gifts and leadership styles but they are able to work together as a team for the benefit of the Jewish people. Pointing back to the encounter at the burning bush, once Moshe agrees to go to Pharaoh if Aaron will accompany him, Hashem tells Moshe, “[Aaron] will see you and rejoice in his heart” (Exodus 4:14).  The Midrash Rabbah comments: “R. Shimon bar R. Yosee said:  the heart that rejoiced at the greatness of his brother will wear the Urimve-Tumim.”  Rabbi Sacks explains that just as Aharon made space and deflected his personal glory for Moshe, in our parsha Moshe takes a backseat in order to allow Aharon to lead as the kohen gadol.   

The message of celebrating the accomplishments of others and of allowing our friends and families bask in the limelight is relevant to the upcoming holiday of Purim as well.  The SrideiEish explains that the purpose of the mitzvah of mishloachmanotis “to increase peace, love and friendship.”  With this in mind, R. Nisim ha-Cohen suggests that perhaps one should not be able to fulfill the obligation by sending to one’s parents because it is a given that we have great love for our parents.  Perhaps it would be embarrassing to imply that there is need to increase the love any more by sending Mishloach Manot.  Rav Ovadia Yosef strongly rejects this position.   He writes: “to the contrary, it is a great mitzvah to increase the love and brotherhood among relatives.  Sometimes there is strife between them, but love covers all the iniquities.”  The mitzvah of mishloach manot forces us to focus on the relationships we have in our lives – the relationships with family, friends, members of our community.  What emerges is a powerful reminder that we can never take these relationships for granted.  We must actively nurture them and take steps to ensure they will continue to flourish and be in the model of Moshe and Aaron.   

As we celebrate Purim  let us also take this lesson to heart.  Let us use Purim as an opportunity to connect with our friends and family and let them know how much we love and appreciate them.   

Zachor – Thoughts on The Mitzvah to Destroy Amalek

This Shabbos, the Shabbat preceding Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor.  We read of commandment to remember how the nation Amalek attacked us in the desert and our obligation to obliterate Amalek.  We read it this week because Haman, the villain of the Purim story was a descendant of Amalek.  It is a mitzvah de-oraitai (Biblically mandated commandment) to read this passage every year.

(יז) זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ (יח) אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹקִֽים׃ (יט) וְהָיָ֡ה בְּהָנִ֣יחַ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֣יךָ ׀ לְ֠ךָ מִכָּל־אֹ֨יְבֶ֜יךָ מִסָּבִ֗יב בָּאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יְהוָֽה־אֱ֠לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֤ נַחֲלָה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃ (פ)

(17) Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— (18) how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. (19) Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Devarim 25:17-19).

This mitzvah raises many questions.  First is the moral dilemma that the Torah seems to be mandating genocide against an entire nation.  It is true that the mitzvah is no longer applicable as the Gemara in Brachot (28a) asserts:

 כבר עלה סנחריב מלך אשור ובלבל את כל האומות, 

Sennacherib king of Assyria long ago went up and mixed up all the nations

Meaning that due to a policy of population displacement, we have no way of identifying the descendants of Amalek.  Still, as Rabbi Elchanan Samet writes, even if  the mitzvah is not applicable today, “this does not exempt us form the obligation to study and understand it.”

Others explain that although we can no longer identify the biological descendants of Amalek, the ideology of Amalek persists and must be rooted out.  This approach is based on the Rambam’s Hilchot Melachim 6:4 which rules that we are commanded to wipe out any Amalekite “who did not make peace or accept the Seven Noahide commandments.”  The Kesef Mishnah explains:

שאם קבלו עליהם שבע מצות הרי יצאו מכלל שבעה עממין ומכלל עמלק והרי הם כבני נח הכשרים:

If they make peace and accept the Noahide laws, they are no longer considered part of the seven nations or of Amalek, but they are like acceptable Noahides.

A second troubling detail in the mitzvah to wage war against Amalek is why other nations are not treated as harshly.  There seems to be an imbalance that does not make sense.  For example, we read in Devarim 23:8-9

ח) לֹֽא־תְתַעֵ֣ב אֲדֹמִ֔י כִּ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ ה֑וּא (ס) לֹא־תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י כִּי־גֵ֖ר הָיִ֥יתָ בְאַרְצֽוֹ׃ בָּנִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־יִוָּלְד֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם דּ֣וֹר שְׁלִישִׁ֑י יָבֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם בִּקְהַ֥ל ה’׃ (ס)

You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.  Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the LORD in the third generation.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains this imbalance based on the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 5:16:

טז) כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁהִיא תְלוּיָה בְדָבָר, בָּטֵל דָּבָר, בְּטֵלָה אַהֲבָה. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, אֵינָהּ בְּטֵלָה לְעוֹלָם.

All love that depends on a something, [when the] thing ceases, [the] love ceases; and [all love] that does not depend on anything, will never cease.

He explains that what’s true when it comes to love is true when it comes to hate:

When hate is rational, based on some fear or disapproval that – justified or not – has some logic to it, then it can be reasoned with and brought to an end. But unconditional, irrational hatred cannot be reasoned with. There is nothing one can do to address it and end it. It persists. (https://rabbisacks.org/two-types-hate-ki-teitse-5777/)

The Egyptians’ persecution and hatred of the Jews was based on a rational argument:

(ט) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ (י) הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(9) And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. (10) Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”

In the Egyptians’ eyes, B’nei Yisrael  posed a legitimate threat.  They were certainly not justified in enslaving the Jews and killing our sons, but the persecution was rational.  Amalek’s attack against the weak and feeble was not based on any rational argument or perceived threat.  It was an act of pure hatred, which is why Amalek is treated so harshly.

I want to share a final thought that is still in formation when it comes to the imperative to remember Amalek.  The mitzvah seems to be contradictory.  On the one hand we are told – זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק Remember what Amalek did to you… —  and לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃ do not forget!  Yet we are also told תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  So which one is it – are we to remember forever what Amalek did to us or are we supposed to blot out their memory?

Much has been written about this paradox and I don’t have much to add.  However, it did occur to me that this curious, contradictory detail is especially relevant in our day as we contend with the idea of cancel culture.  The Torah seems to be telling us that there are certain people/ideas that should be cancelled — תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם the memory of Amalek must be totally eradicated.  Yet, we must also remember, and never forget Amalek.  To totally cancel is impossible.  So the message seems to be that part of the mitzvah or remembering Amalek is to remind ourselves why their idea is so dangerous and should not be taken seriously.  If there is hatred, persecution or disagreement based on rational calculations – even if those calculations are wrong – then we must try to understand the other side and use logical arguments to show why they are wrong.  But when it comes to opponents like Amalek, there is no understanding and there is no value in engaging with them.  Our society is very eager and willing to embrace the cancel culture and shut out any viewpoint or opinion that differs from ours.  There may well be times when this approach is correct but certainly not at the rate and prevalence at which we are currently experiencing it.  Perhaps, it may be said, the embracing of cancel culture is another manifestation of Amalek that must be combatted.

Mishpatim – Na’aseh ve-Nishma and Angelic Secrets

The end of Parshat Mishpatim brings us back to Har Sinai and the moment of revelation.  Interestingly, it is only now in Chapter 24 that we come across B’nai Yisrael’ famous declaration na’aseh ve-nishma – we will do and we will listen.  The verse in full is (Shemot 24:7):

וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃

Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!”

The Gemara Shabbat 88a brings the following often-quoted comment:

אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהִקְדִּימוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל ״נַעֲשֶׂה״ לְ״נִשְׁמָע״ יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה לָהֶן: מִי גִּלָּה לְבָנַי רָז זֶה שֶׁמַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת מִשְׁתַּמְּשִׁין בּוֹ?

Rabbi Elazar said: When the Jewish people accorded precedence to the declaration “We will do” over “We will hear,” a Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Who revealed to my children this secret that the ministering angels use?

It is true that the statement “we will do and we will listen” seems to defy logic.  Typically we must first hear an instruction before performing a deed.  But the illogic of the statement does not explain what angelic secret it contains.

The Ramban explains that the statement describes the chronological order of events as they transpired at Sinai.  He notes that after hearing the first two of the Ten Commandments directly from God, the nation was frightened.  They approached Moshe and said (Devarim 5:22):

וְעַתָּה֙ לָ֣מָּה נָמ֔וּת כִּ֣י תֹֽאכְלֵ֔נוּ הָאֵ֥שׁ הַגְּדֹלָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את אִם־יֹסְפִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ לִ֠שְׁמֹעַ אֶת־ק֨וֹל ה’ אֱלֹקֵ֛ינוּ ע֖וֹד וָמָֽתְנוּ׃

Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die.

Returning to our verse, the Ramban explains that B’nei Yisrael said na’aseh ve-nishma as part of their bargaining with Moshe to intercede on their behalf.  They committed to do all that they had already heard God command them (na’aseh) and that they would listen to Moshe as he told them the subsequent mitzvot that only he would hear directly from God.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein extends this idea in his commentary on the Chumash, Darash Moshe.  He explains that B’nei Yisrael committed themselves to follow the instructions of Moshe Rabeinu and the Torah sages of each generation:

In the first one, the Jews agreed to accept only those utterances they knew to have been said by Hashem.  Hashem, however, knew that this kind of acceptance is not adequate, since it is possible that over the course of time certain things would be forgotten or their underlying reasons distorted.  Therefore He desired that the Jews also believe that they must accept whatever would be said by the Torah sages of each generation.  This includes both the traditions received by the Sages from their predecessors and their interpretation of the Torah’s meaning.  

This line of explanation is quite beautiful but it doesn’t explain how saying na’aseh before nishma is an angelic secret. 

The Maharal explains that typically, people will only do something if they know it is in their best interest; this is why hearing typically precedes doing.  Angels are not like this.  They are created to fulfill

God’s will.  As Rabbi Haim Sabato explains the Maharal, “Since their function is determined at their creation, their deeds necessarily precede knowledge.”  The Maharal explains that when B’nei Yisrael entered into the covenant with God, Hashem embedded in their nature the purpose of their creation as his nation; to the will of their Creator.  We have the opportunity to be like the angles in that doing God’s will precedes hearing or understanding since it is now fixed in our inner nature. 

The Beit haLevi offers a different understanding of the greatness of saying na’aseh before nishma.  He explains that when it comes to Torah and Mitzvot there are two levels of knowledge.   The first is technical knowledge of how to perform each of the mitzvot.  This level of understanding is the meaning of the declaration na’aseh (we will do).  There is a separate and higher level of Torah lishmah – studying and understanding Torah for its own sake.  That is, to have an intellectual understanding of the Torah as God’s will.  This type of Torah knowledge is embodied in the word nishma, which he takes to mean “we will understand.”  The Beit HaLevi concludes that na’aseh had to come before nishmah, or else we might have thought that nishmah refers to understanding in order to properly perform the mitzvah. 

The Sefat Emet says very similarly that na’aseh refers to the performance of the mitzvot while nishma refers to the ta’amei ha-mitzvot – understanding the rationale and values of the mitzvot.  If nishma would have come first  then we might have thought that performing the mitzvot was not important so long as we achieve the desired goal or value of the mitzvah.  The Sefat Emet explains that we must properly perform each mitzvah on their own terms and only then focus on a deeper understanding of the rationale or underlying values.

The same page of Gemara with which we began our discussion of na’aseh ve-nishma has a beautiful description of the events as they unfolded at Sinai:

דָּרַשׁ רַבִּי סִימַאי: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהִקְדִּימוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל ״נַעֲשֶׂה״ לְ״נִשְׁמָע״ בָּאוּ שִׁשִּׁים רִיבּוֹא שֶׁל מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת, לְכׇל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל קָשְׁרוּ לוֹ שְׁנֵי כְתָרִים, אֶחָד כְּנֶגֶד ״נַעֲשֶׂה״ וְאֶחָד כְּנֶגֶד ״נִשְׁמָע״. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁחָטְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, יָרְדוּ מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים רִיבּוֹא מַלְאֲכֵי חַבָּלָה וּפֵירְקוּם,

Rabbi Simai taught: When Israel accorded precedence to the declaration “We will do” over the declaration “We will hear,” 600,000 ministering angels came and tied two crowns to each and every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to “We will do” and one corresponding to “We will hear.” And when the people sinned with the Golden Calf, 1,200,000 angels of destruction descended and removed them

It has always struck me that when the declaration of na’aseh ve-nishma was made, the two ideas were so intrinsically connected that one angel could deliver both crowns.  But once we sinned with the golden calf and no longer were at the level of angles, the crowns became separated so that each angel could only collect one crown.  The message is that we must give equal weight to na’aseh and to nishma.  The angelic secret that we uncovered at Sinai was the ability to embody and live with both of these ideas at the same time.