Skip to content

Bamidbar and the Current Violence in Israel

Parshat Bamidbar opens with the command to take a census of B’nei Yisrael.  This is followed by the description of the Israelite camp in the desert.  We are given a description of where each tribe was stationed with the Mishkan and shevet Levi in the center:

אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ׃

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Bamidbar 2:2)

It is explained that each tribe was strategically placed to highlight their strengths and unique characteristics.  If this is the case, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky asks why the camp was only organized this way in the second year after the Exodus from Egypt; wouldn’t it have made more sense to organize the camp in the desired manner from the beginning?

He answers that had the camp been set up with each tribe marching under its own banner from the get-go, then there was  a strong danger that this would lead to division of the Jewish people.  Each tribe might take pride in their own abilities and downplay the need or significance of the other tribes.  It was necessary to wait for the Torah to given and the Mishkan constructed before emphasizing the unique characteristic of each tribe.  The camp was organized with the Mishkan at its center to emphasize that the Torah unites us.  Each tribe could celebrate its own uniqueness only when there was a shared commitment to the Torah.  The Torah must be a unifying force of the Jewish people.  The Torah provides a shared purpose and mission.  It would have been counterproductive to organize the camp before the nation had committed to and united over the Torah. 

As Jews living in the 21st Century, our symbolic camp is certainly centered around the Torah.  It is also centered around Israel – no matter where we live or our political leanings, the Jewish people should be united in our commitment to and deep appreciation for the State of Israel.  Just as the camp of B’nei Yisrael in the desert was organized around the Torah, our contemporary camp must organized with Israel at the center.

We offer our deep tefilot that the current violence comes to an end and that the families of those who have been killed and injured find some comfort.  We pray that those who have been traumatized by the missile attacks and constant retreats to bomb shelters find some calm and rest this Shabbos.

Bechukotai – Tragedy at Har Meiron and the End of Sefer Vayikra

This week we read the double Parsha of Behar-Bechukotai and with it conclude the book of Vayikra.  The parsha concludes with an odd set of laws concerning arachin.  This refers to the valuation that are placed on people, animals and land for the sake of making a donation to the Beit haMikdash.  There are monetary values placed on men and women depending on their age.  When it comes to animals or real estate, there is an appraisal process in which the kohanim determine the value of the item the person wishes to pledge.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that this final chapter does not fit with the rest of Sefer Vayikra.  The mora appropriate conclusion would be the end of chapter 26 (pauk 46) –

(מו) אֵ֠לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֮ וְהַתּוֹרֹת֒ אֲשֶׁר֙ נָתַ֣ן ה’ בֵּינ֕וֹ וּבֵ֖ין בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ (פ)

These are the laws, rules, and instructions that the LORD established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people.

Rav Hirsch explains that the final chapter “is quite clearly by its position in the book, only to be taken as an additional supplementary concluding chapter.”  According to Rav Hirsch, the main focus of Sefer Vayikra, and of our service of Hashem is that which was referenced at the end of chapter 26 – חקים, משפטים, תורות – laws, rules and instructions.  All of the pledges in chapter 27 on the other hand are presented in the context of איש כי יפליא נדר”” “when anyone explicitly vows to the Lord.”  A נדר, or vow, is “something not demanded by the Torah, but purely an act directed by one’s own feelings and wishes.”  Thus our main focus is on fulfilling the mitzvot that we are commanded to do.  As the Talmud famously asserts (Kidushin 31a), גדול מצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה, Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it than one who is not commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it.”  We must be sure to meet and fulfill our core obligations before adding more commitments to our plates.

The Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon Luntschitz, 1550-1619, Poland) offers a different explanation for the placement of the rules of arachin at the very end of Sefer Vayikra.  Chapter 26 of Sefer Vayikra contains the tochecha or description of punishments and curses should the Jewish people not follow the Torah.   The tochecha is difficult to read as it goes to great detail describing the various tragedies that will befall the Jewish people should they fail to observe the Torah.  In fact, the minhag is that when we read this section in shul, we do so in a quiet, rushed voice to show how difficult it is.  The Kli Yakar says that because the tochecha is so difficult, we have to read of the arachin and voluntary pledges that follow.  The reason for this is:

סמך פר’ זו לקללות לומר שישראל נודרים בעת צרה… אבל לדורות זה דרכם כסל למו שנודרים בעת צרה ובעבור סופה צרה וצוקה הם מתחרטים ושבים לסורם

This passage [of arachin] comes after the curses [of the tochecha] to show that the Jewish people pledges during times of trouble…In future generations their secret is that they pledge during times of trouble to show that they regret their transgressions and wish to repent.”  In other words, according to the Kli Yakar, the Jewish response to tragedy and suffering is to donate, give and sacrifice.  By teaching these laws of arachin after the horrors of the tochecha the Torah stresses that each individual has value and the response to tragedy is to pledge our value to the continuation of the Jewish people.

We have unfortunately witnessed the Kli Yakar’s response to tragedy this past week in the aftermath of the Lag ba-Omer tragedy at Har Meiron.  There has been an outpouring of acts of kindness in response to this tragedy.  It would have been very easy to throw up our hands in despair, but the Jewish people have internalized the lesson of the conclusion of Sefer Vayikra. 

Emor – Lessons from the Kohanim

The first half of Parshat Emor (Chapters 21 and 22)begins with series of halachot directed at the Kohanim in general as well as many directed specifically at the Kohen Gadol.  We learn of the restrictions on mourning and coming in contact with the dead as well as the family members for which kohanim are required to mourn.  At the same time the Kohen Gadol cannot become tameh for anyone, even his parents.  We read of the added restrictions about whom a Kohen can and cannot marry and of the prohibition against a kohen with a blemish serving in the Beit ha-Mikdash.  And the list goes on.

Many have pointed out that the placement of our Parsha seems out of place.  These halachot should have been included in the first half of Sefer Vayikra which discusses all the aspect of the kohanim’s service in the Mishkan and subsequently in the Beit haMikdash.  In fact, many suggest that the book of Vayikra can be divided in two – Torat Kohanim which discusses the service in the Mishkan and the Kohanim’s role and Sefer ha-Kedusha beginning with Parshat Kedoshim (chapter 19) and which discusses laws of holiness addressed to the entire nation.  If this is correct, then Parshat Emor should be included in the first half of the book directed at the Kohanim.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l offers an interesting suggestion to the placement of Parshat Emor in the second half of Sefer Vayikra (  He turns to a Gemara in Zevachim 17b.  The Mishnah had ruled that if the blood of a sacrifice was collected by a priest lacking the requisite priestly vestments (מחוסר בגדים) it is disqualified.  The Gemara offers the following explanation:

מחוסר בגדים: מנלן אמר רבי אבוה אמר רבי יוחנן ומטו בה משמיה דרבי אלעזר ברבי שמעון דאמר קרא (שמות כט, ט) וחגרת אותם אבנט אהרן ובניו וחבשת להם מגבעות והיתה להם כהונה לחקת עולם בזמן שבגדיהם עליהם כהונתם עליהם אין בגדיהם עליהם אין כהונתם עליהם

From where do we derive this? Rabbi Avuh says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says, and some determined it to be stated in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: As the verse states: “And you shall gird them with belts, Aaron and his sons, and bind mitres on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute” (Exodus 29:9). The verse indicates that when their vestments are on them, their priesthood is upon them, but if their vestments are not on them, their priesthood is not upon them.

In other words, according to this source, the identity of a Kohen is limited to when he is on active duty in the Beit ha-Mikdash.    Likewise, the halachot of Torat Kohanim discuss the Kohen’s service in the Temple.  The halachot of our parsha largely pertain to the Kohanim outside of the Beit haMikdash.  Unlike the Gemara in Zevachim, the Torah is telling us that the kedusha (holiness) of the Kohanim pertains in all walks of life and not just in the Beit ha-Mikdash. 

Rav Lichtenstein concludes by noting that the lesson rings true for us today.  We may think that our religious life and kedusha is limited to when we find ourselves in shul or learning in the Beit Midrash.  He powerfully explains:

We are defined by our presence within the four walls of the beit midrash, and even when we are not there, we have an obligation always to cling to and identify with a makom Torah (place of Torah). The beit midrash is our Temple, and we toil in it as the kohen does in his. However, when we leave the walls of the beit midrash behind us, our identity as a ben Torah remains unchanged.

With this explanation in mind, I would like to share a second idea that very much compliments the first.  The Kedushat Levi asks why our parsha begins with a seemingly redundant phrase (Vayikra 21:1):

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃

The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin,

We know that the Kohanim are descendant of Aaron; why then does the Torah identify them as such?  He answers that the Kohanim might think that they are better and holier than the rest of the Jewish people:

בהיות כאשר ציוה ה’ למשה לאמר לכהנים שיקדשו עצמם, אך פן ירום לבב הכהנים ויתגאו לבבם לאמר מי כמוהם אשר בהם בחר ה’ מכל ישראל להקדישם בקדושה והאכילם קדשי שמים שאסור לזרים בוודאי הם חשובים לפני המקום מאוד וחיבתו להם יותר מכל ישראל וירום לבבם על אחיהם בני ישראל.

Seeing that the subject of Moses’ address to the priests ‎concerns the priests’ sanctifying themselves by abstaining from ‎incurring ritual defilement, all the special laws addressed to them ‎may make them feel superior, or even haughty. Moses is to warn ‎them that the fact that a part of the Torah is exclusively ‎addressed to them must not make them feel that they are better ‎or holier than the remainder of their peers.

He says that Hashem used the seemingly superfluous phrase בני אהרן (the descendants of Aaron) to impress upon the Kohanim that the extra strictures and measures of kedusha come only from the fact that they are the descendants of Aaron.  They did nothing to earn an elevated status and therefore have no reason to boast or think that they are better than the rest of the Jewish people. 

This too is a lesson for us today.  It happens too frequently that those who identify as frum look down on others who are less observant or less knowledgeable.  We must learn from the Torah’s message to the Kohanim that we should never use our connection to Torah and mitzvot to look down on others.   We should be proud of our accomplishments and of the lifestyle that we choose to live, but never at the expense of putting others down.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Placement of Acharei Mot

This week we read the double portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.  Parshat Acharei Mot opens by referencing the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. It proceeds to tell of the Yom Kippur service.  However, we read of the death of Nadav and Avihu in Parshat Shemini a few weeks earlier.  Between the story of their death and the opening of our parsha the Torah elaborates on a number of laws including: the prohibition against kohanim serving in the beit ha-mikdashwhile drunk; laws of kashrut; and a series of laws of tumah (impurity) relating to bodily emissions and the disease of tzara’at.  If Acharei Mot and the details of the Yom Kippur service are meant to follow the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, why do six chapters separate the two episodes? 

A number of commentators raise this very question.  Rashi explains that in performing the Yom Kippur service Aharon and future high priests run the risk of repeating the mistake made by Nadav and Avihu when they approached God in an inappropriate manner, since this is the one time during the year when they may enter the Holy of Holies.  The Torah mentions the deaths of his sons to impress on Aaron the importance and severity of the laws being discussed.  Rashi gives an analogy: a generic warning given by a doctor not to eat certain foods is much less effective than when the doctor is able to point to a specific person who made the same mistake. 

I would like to suggest that the exact timing of our parsha is not so crucial, as long as it happened after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  The Torah introduces the laws of Yom Kippur with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to show the impact of this tragedy on Aaron.  After the tragic loss of his sons he understood the laws of Yom Kippur differently.  As the representative of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur, he seeks atonement for all sins that they have committed.  His capacity to empathize and identify with the sins and shortcomings of others was radically enhanced after he was forced to reconcile with the sin and shortcomings of his own children.  Aharon is much better able to facilitate the teshuvah (repentance)of others after he has come to terms with this tragic event in his own life and the breach it must have formed in his relationship with God.  The tragedy – and lessons learned from it —  remained with Aharon his entire life.  It was a transformative moment.  The Torah records that the laws of Yom Kippur were given after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to emphasize Aaron’s capacity to internalize the laws differently in light of their deaths. 

While our parsha presents an extreme example, the message is clear.  We cannot divorce our life experiences from how we relate to Judaism.  We must internalize the transformative moments in our lives in order to empathize and relate to our fellow humans. 

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.