“Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them the following: When a person from among you offers a sacrifice to Hashem, if it is an animal sacrifice, it should be taken from the cattle or the flocks of sheep or goats.” (VaYikra 1:2)
This passage introduces the Torah’s discussion of sacrifices.
The asham sacrifice – a guilt offering-was brought by a person who had sinned by committing robbery or fraud. The guilty person had to give back the stolen item plus an additional one fifth of its value and then sacrifice an animal or give the equivalent in money. Depending on the financial means and social status of the individual, female sheep or goat, birds or choice flour could also be sacrificed. An asham for one of the leaders of the people consisted of a male kid or lamb. When an animal was sacrificed, the blood would be daubed on the horns of the burnt offering altar.
Rabbi Saul Oresky comments: ‘The asham sacrifice raised concerns among the prophets who thought a person might commit a deliberate wrong and then offer a sacrifice to square the account. They felt that this kind of offering was superficial and did not lead the people to change their behavior or to be close to God. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah condemned the people for offering sacrifices while continuing to behave wickedly.’
There is a remarkable parallel to the development of sacrifices. Rabbi Bernie Fox explains: ‘Maimonides discusses the mitzvah of prayer in his Mishne Torah. He explains that, according to the Torah, we are required to pray every day. The Torah does not establish a set number of prayers for each day. Neither is there a specified text. Each person is free to pray once, or numerous times each day. Each individual’s prayers are a personal expression of one’s own feelings.
Originally, the mitzvah was observed in the manner prescribed by the Torah. However, after the destruction of the first Temple and the subsequent exile, a problem arose. The majority of the nation was no longer fluent in Hebrew the sacred language. Hebrew was replaced by a variety of languages. Most were unable to effectively express themselves in appropriate prayers. Ezra and his court intervened. They ordained that we should pray three times each day. They also established a specific text for the prayers. In short, prayer was transformed. Originally, it was a personal expression. Ezra created structure and regulation…Ezra’s reformulation of prayer did not detract from the mitzvah. Instead, the mitzvah was enhanced. Ezra made prayer more accessible to the average person. He also added structure and regulation. This addition enhances the element of devotion in prayer. The supplicant, through adhering to these laws, demonstrates submission to the Almighty’s will. Through Ezra, prayer more closely models the concept of Divine service expressed in sacrificial service.’
“The people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Make us a shrine which will go before us. We have no idea what became of Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt…” The people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron, who cast them into a molten calf. Some of the people began to say, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1-4)
The question is obvious: If the Jews just witnessed God’s awesome power in the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the revelation at Mount Sinai, how could these same people turn around a worship a Golden Calf?
The answer is that the Jews never built the calf with the intention it should be worshipped. Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains: “Here’s what happened: When Moses said, “I’m going up the mountain for 40 days,” his intent was 40 full days. The people, however, mistakenly included in their count that first day – thus expecting Moses to return one day earlier. So when Day 39 rolled around, the Jews began to wonder, “Where’s Moses?” This caused great anxiety. For although the people knew it was God Himself Who’d orchestrated all the miracles, it was nevertheless Moses who’d raised his staff for the Red Sea to split. They relied on Moses as captain of the team around whom they rallied to get the job done. Their fundamental mistake? They lost patience, the serenity of knowing that life is a process and everything happens in its time. This lack of trust in made them lose touch with reality and – fueled by fear and anxiety – their imaginations began to run wild. On Day 39, the malcontents in the camp began circulating rumors that he wasn’t coming back at all. In fact, they managed to instill so much fear and anxiety, that the Talmud says the people actually saw a vision of Moses dead! (So strong is the power of suggestion.) Then the Jews reasoned: If Moses isn’t coming back, we must craft ourselves a replacement. And so the Golden Calf was born. Not as an idol; not as a rebellion against God. But as a figurehead. A mere shrine to replace the missing Moses. During the incident of the Golden Calf, one man named Chur arose to protest. So how did the crowd respond? Their connection to this “idol” had grown so strong that they lynched Chur to death!
When Moses came down from the mountain and smashed the Tablets, he issued a pronouncement to all Jews:
‘You can now turn back and avoid tragedy. Stop worshipping the Golden Calf and affirm your loyalty to God.’
Only the Tribe of Levi, comprising about 3% of the Jewish population, accepted Moses’ words. The other 97% remained stuck in their failed venture…
The lesson of the Golden Calf is to think about what we’re doing. What starts innocently may turn out tragic…With the right clarity, when we hear the voice, we will stand up and be counted.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
Parshat Tetzaveh usually precedes Purim, when we read the “maftir”portion describing how Amalek attacked the Jewish people as they left Egypt – even though Amalek lived in a distant land and was under no imminent threat. So why did Amalek attack?
Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains: ‘The Torah says that Amalek attacked the Jews “karcha” – which literally means by way of happenstance. Amalek’s entire philosophy is that there is no design or providence in the world. Everything is haphazard, dictated by chance, luck and fate. That’s why Haman, a direct descendent of Amalek, decided to kill the Jews based on a lottery, from which the name “Purim” is derived. Philosophically, Amalek and the Jewish people stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. Judaism believes that the world has purpose and meaning, and that God is intimately involved in our lives. Indeed, that is the very lesson of Purim: Even when things seems bleak, God is there, guiding events. With Haman’s decree, it seemed that the Jews were doomed. But then there was a dramatic turnabout. In our own lives, to the extent we may doubt God’s involvement, is the extent that Amalek’s philosophy of randomness is part of us.
The Kabbalists point out the numerical value of Amalek — 240 — is the same as safek, meaning “doubt.” The energy of Amalek is to create doubts about what is true and real in this world, and of God’s role in directing events in the best possible way. This concept is so important that one of 613 mitzvot is to remember what Amalek did. And that’s what we do, every year, on the Shabbat before Purim. So let’s take this message to heart, and do our part – to fight Amalek’s idea of a random world.’
But Rashi offers other explanations, one of which is quite fascinating. Rashi suggests that “asher karcha” can mean “he who cooled you off,” and he offers the metaphor of a seething cauldron or tub of boiling water, which Amalek cooled off by jumping into it. Rabbi Weinrib elaborates: ‘The seething cauldron can be a metaphor for either the fear with which the other witnessing nations were overcome, which was dissipated by Amalek’s precedent. Alternatively, it can be a metaphor for the bubbling enthusiasm of the triumphant Jewish people, which was diminished, perhaps permanently, by the effects of Amalek’s attack.
Rabbi Isaac Hutner, in his posthumously published essays on Purim, takes the latter approach. “The Jewish people,” he writes, “were full of a spiritual energy and optimism that was dimmed by the scoffer Amalek.” The scoffing cynic has the ability to burst the bubble of enthusiasm with a shrug and a “so what?” or “big deal!” Amalek rained on our parade…It would be instructive to remember Amalek as the cynical scoffer who would diminish our fervor and spirit. In remembering him in this manner, we would also do well to resolve that we ourselves are never guilty of mocking the accomplishments of others. We must be careful not to rain on the parade of other human beings, but rather to appreciate their accomplishments with neither envy nor disparagement.’
Betzalel was given the task of constructing all the pieces of the Tabernacle in the desert. In making the Aron – the box that held the Tablets of the Law – he used wood and gold. It would seem to have been sufficient to cover the wooden box with gold, but actually God required it to be also covered inside with gold. So it was a gold box inside a wood box inside a gold box. Why all the unnecessary gold?
Rabbi Max Weiman answers: ‘WYSIWYG stands for “what you see is what you get.” This concept has many ramifications. When you can tell what you’re getting you have trust and confidence in the producer of the goods. The fakers of the world cause us to mistrust everyone. They not only damage their own credibility, but they ruin things for the rest…Who is God? Does He put on a fake exterior? Does He pretend to be what He’s not?
God is infinite. He does not change. He is through and through the same. A oneness that has no equal. Therefore any hint of falsehood or fake exterior is the opposite of Godliness. The Talmud says that one of the telltale signs of a true scholar is that his “outside reflect his inside.” Someone who wants to be an example and a representative of holiness in the world must aspire to this trait. And in fact it’s something that each of us, on whatever level we’re on, should strive for. One of the most important commandments in the Torah is to emulate the Almighty. Since truth, honesty, and integrity are part of God’s definition, we need to emulate those traits. That’s what the Aron represents: the quality of the inside and the outside being one.’
Rabbi Ron Jawary offers his insight into the Parshah and the concept of giving and taking with regard to the ‘terumah’: ‘One of the main misconceptions people have about Judaism is that they feel they are doing God a favor by doing mitzvot. However, since God is Infinite and complete, there isn’t anything we can do for the Divine. This week the Torah teaches us that what would seem like the most altruistic gift of all time — the giving of our assets to build God’s home — is not really giving at all. It is an opportunity to open ourselves to a relationship with the Divine. “Build for Me a temple and I will dwell amongst you.” Perhaps that is why the giving of our resources to build the temple is referred to as “taking” – “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion…” (Exodus, 25:2). Every time we do a mitzvah, we create an eternal connection between ourselves and the Divine. Doing something for God is really doing something for ourselves. We can become a little bit kinder and a little more understanding. The attitude we need to nurture is that everything in life is one big opportunity to connect with God. He is the ultimate giver in the world, and we can choose to be His conduit or partner — the medium of connection between this world and the Divine. That’s one of the reasons why the Torah is called a “tree of life:” it teaches us how to plant seeds that can blossom for eternity.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
The Torah states: “You shall not curse a judge, and a ruler among your people you shall not curse.” (Exodus 22:27) Even though you might think that a judge has erred in rendering a decision against you, you are forbidden to curse him. It is very possible that he is correct and you are wrong, but you are unaware of the justice because a person often overlooks his own guilt. However, even if a judge has erred, you nonethelss have no right to curse him.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin relates the following story: “In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld lived in the Old City of Jerusalem. He was an exemplary talmud chacham (scholar) full of knowledge, wisdom and refined character. Before Rosh Hashana, someone who lost a court case over which Rav Yosef Chaim presided, approached Rabbi Sonnenfeld and cursed him for what he felt was a distortion of justice. Rabbi Sonnenfeld was grieved to see the man behave in such a manner, especially right before Rosh Hashanah. With an outward appearance of anger, he said to him, “Listen to me! If you are right, I will pray to God to forgive me, because a judge is not infallible and can only decide a case in the manner which he thinks correct. But if I am right…” The person was in a very nervous state as Rabbi Sonnenfeld continued, “If I am right, God should forgive you.” Upon hearing this, the man calmed down and asked forgiveness from Rabbi Sonnenfeld. When the man left, Rav Yosef Chaim explained to those who were in the room with him, “This man is really a fine person. I knew that when he would calm down, he would definitely regret his behavior and he would surely want to repent for what he has done. However, knowing that for his repentance to be accepted he would have to ask me for forgiveness, he might have been embarrassed to approach me and wouldn’t repent at all. I therefore decided to make it easier for him to repent.”
The Torah states: “Do not go after the majority to do evil” (Exodus 23:2). Rabainu Bachya explains that the plain meaning of our verse is that if you see many people doing something that is wrong, you should not follow their example.It is natural for a person to imitate the behavior of others and say, “So many other people are doing this, it can’t be so wrong if I do it also.” The Torah is telling us that every person is responsible for his own behavior and that Truth is not legislated by majority rule. It takes courage and strength of character to be different from other people and to live your life by your ideals. If you appreciate that the most important thing in the world is to do the will of the Almighty, you will be able to withstand social pressure.
Before Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the stone Tablets, he and seventy elders were at the foot of the mountain. There: “They saw a vision of the God of Israel, and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear sky” (Exodus 24:10). What can we learn from their vision? Rashi comments that the brick was in the presence of the Almighty during the time the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt to remind Him of their suffering since they were forced to build with bricks in their slavery. “The essence of a clear sky” is a reminder that once they were liberated there was light and joy before the Almighty. Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz comments that whenever the Torah tells us about the attributes of the Almighty, the purpose is to teach us how we should strive to emulate Him. When someone else suffers, it is not sufficient for us just to try to feel his suffering in the abstract, we should try to ease his suffering if we can. We should also do some concrete action that will clearly remind us of the person’s suffering – rather than just forgetting it and continuing on with our lives. Even at the time of redemption and joy, it is important to recall the previous suffering that one experienced. This adds an entire dimension to the joy. Many people would just like to forget all their suffering when it is over. The proper attitude is to remember it, and this will give a person an even greater appreciation for the good that he experiences.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
“And Yitro, the priest of Midian” (18:1)
In this weeks Torah portion, the central and culminating event of Jewish nationhood takes place. G-d gives the Torah to the Jewish People on Mount Sinai. One would think that of all the possible names for this weeks Parsha, the least likely would be that of a non-Jewish priest who had tried every form of idol worship in the world. And yet there it is in black and white: “Yitro priest of Midian.”
Why was this central Parsha of the Torah named after Yitro?
When Yitro heard of the Exodus and the miracles that were performed for the Jewish People his happiness was so great that he felt physically elated, like someone who weeps or faints through being overwhelmed with the emotion of unexpected joy. Literally, his flesh started to prickle. He had gooseflesh. (18:9) No such extreme reaction characterizes the response of the Jewish People. They believed in G-d and Moshe, His servant, sure, but there is no mention of a similar visceral reaction like that of Yitro.
Our nature is to take what we have for granted. Sometimes we need an outsiders view to get us to appreciate with what we have been blessed.
Rabbi Sinclair relates the following true story: “I come from a totally secular Israeli home. By secular I mean atheist. We held no religious beliefs at all, and no Jewish traditions and practices were kept. Yom Kippur was ignored, and I didn’t even celebrate my bar mitzvah.
When I was 16 I began to search for some kind of meaning to life, although at the time I didn’t call it that since I didn’t realize what I was doing. I liked rebels and I started hanging out with all kinds of different people. I dressed and acted like a kind of hippie, and caused no end of embarrassment to my parents. I didn’t believe in anything. I roamed around the country with all the strange characters who were my friends. I could fill a book with my adventures from then.At the age of 21, I packed my bags and set off for India to look for truth. In my quest for meaning, there was no commune or ashram that I did not visit. I got to know many gurus personally. Only someone who has spent time in India can really understand the magnetic force of these communes.My roaming and searching continued and eventually I went to visit the Dalai Lama himself. I was captivated by the Dalai Lama’s personality, by his wisdom and intelligence. I would rise early each morning and attend his daily sermon at 4:30am. As far as I was concerned, he was a human being without any blemishes. Back home in Israel, my parents were worried about me. My father sent me a letter saying he had heard that I had “freaked out,” afraid that I’d really gone crazy. I sent a polite letter back assuring him that I wasn’t crazy but that I was now at a major crossroads in my life. As I mailed the letter I realized that the very wording of my letter would convince my father that I had indeed gone crazy! The same evening I approached one of the Dalai Lama’s assistants and asked for a private audience with the Dalai Lama the next morning after his sermon. The following morning I entered his chambers. He was a gentleman who greeted everyone who came to see him. He bowed to me and offered me a seat. My words poured forth as I told him that I saw truth and meaning in his religion and that I decided to adopt it if he would accept me.”Where are you from,” he asked me. “Israel.” He looked at me. “Are you Jewish?””Yes,” I replied.
His reaction surprised me. His expression turned from friendly to puzzled, with even a tinge of anger. He told me that he did not understand my decision, and that he would not permit me to carry it out. I was stunned. What did he mean? “All religions are an imitation of Judaism,” he stated. “I am sure that when you lived in Israel, your eyes were closed. Please take the first plane back to Israel and open your eyes. Why settle for an imitation when you can have the real thing?”His words spun around in my head the whole day. I thought to myself: I am a Jew and an Israeli, but I know nothing about my own religion. Did I have to search and wander the whole world only to be told that I was blind and that the answers I was seeking were to be found on my own doorstep? I did what the Dalai Lama told me to do. I immediately flew back to Israel and entered a yeshiva. And, as he told me to do, I opened my eyes. I began to see the Dalai Lama had indeed been correct. I discovered Judaism and its vitality, and that it encompassed everything in life. I embraced its laws and found many reasons to live at least 613 reasons! And I found joy. Two years later someone suggested a shidduch. Anat was a young woman of my age who was also a ba’alat teshuvah, a returnee to traditional Judaism. She too had been to Goa and other places in India to search for answers, and she too had found them back in Israel, in the religion of Israel. We clicked immediately. We had gone through the same search for meaning, and the same return to our roots. Eventually, Anat and I got engaged. When I went to offer a gift to the matchmaker, she refused to accept anything, saying that she didn’t deserve it.”But it’s customary to give the matchmaker a gift — and I want to do it.” “You are quite right, but in this case I am not the matchmaker,” she replied simply.”What do you mean?” “I’ll tell you. Anat came to me and showed me a piece of paper with a name in it. She asked me to introduce her to the person whose name was written there. She knew nothing at all about that person, but said that she had been given his name by someone she trusts completely… It was your name.” After the engagement party, Anat and I went for a walk. “Tell me,” I said, “how did this shidduch come about? I want to know who gave you my name, so that I can pay him.” Anat said “I haven’t told you yet that at the end of my wandering, I went to the Dalai Lama. I was very impressed by him and all he embodied and I decided to join his religion. When I told him he said, ‘Anat, since you are Jewish you should not settle for silver if you can have gold.’ He told me to return to my roots and then in a whisper, he asked one of his assistants to bring him a piece of paper. The Dalai Lama then copied the name that was there onto another piece of paper, and handed it to me. ‘This is your soul mate,’ he told me. With a smile, Anat said to me, “So you will have to travel to India to pay the shadchan.”
Sometimes it takes a priest of Midian to remind us that we have the gold.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim