In this week’s parshah, we read of the interminable sin of the Israelites with their construction of the Golden Calf. Much work and study has gone into exploring this act, and we will look at some of the commentaries surrounding this issue, and what, in actuality, was the Israelites’ sin.
Judah Halevi explores this issue and states that the Israelites’ offence lay in the fashioning of an image which had been forbidden to them, and in attributing Divine sanctity to the product of their own desires and hands without being commanded to do so by God. In extenuation of their sin, Halevi explains that we should remember the lack of unanimity that preceded it and the fact that the worshippers of the Golden Calf constituted only 3,000 out of a mass of 600,000 persons. However, the excuse of the leaders who helped in fashioning the Golden Calf was that they did so for the purpose of distinguishing between the believer and disbeliever in order to put to death those caught actually worshipping it. Their culpability lay in leading the rebellion from the realm of thought into that of deed. Judah Halevi also attempts to analyze the role of Aaron in this whole ordeal, for as we know, he is considered blameworthy and was punished in connection to this sin. Halevi believes that the sin of the Israelites did not constitute a total repudiation of the service of He that brought them out of Egypt, but was rather a partial repudiation of some of God’s commands. The Almighty had warned them against making images, and they had made one instead of waiting. They themselves had no right to determine the mode of worship and make an altar and sacrifices in accordance with it. Their conduct can be compared to the parable of the fool who entered the doctor’s dispensary and himself prescribed the drugs, thereby killing the patients who would have been saved by being given the proper doses by the doctor himself. The people did not intend to commit idolatry but imagined that they were striving to worship the true God. For this reason, they applied to Aaron to translate their strivings into reality. Their sin seems much more serious today because few indulge in actual worship of images as they did in those days. If instead they had built a house of worship to suit their own wishes, it would not have seemed so serious to us since we are accustomed today to build our own houses of worship and even maintain that the Divine presence rests on them. Were it not for the necessity in exile of keeping the community together, this conduct of ours would be forbidden just as it was in the days of the kings when they denounced those who made their own private places of worship which were called ‘high places’. Pious kings tore them down in order to preserve the uniqueness of the house which God himself had chosen. In those days, images were not in themselves forbidden. As we may note from the Divine command to make the cherubim. Despite all this, and the death punishment of the 3,000 sinners, the manna did not stop, the pillar of fire continued to lead them, and the prophetic spirit persisted in their midst. The only thing that they were deprived of was the two tablets, which Moses broke and interceded with God to restore. These were restored, and that iniquity was expiated.
Nechama Leibowitz helps to clarify Halevi’s outlook and states that he maintains the legitimacy of the cherubim and the forbidden nature of the Golden Calf, which was derived solely from the express command of God Himself. Images were not in themselves reprehensible. The calf was forbidden because it was not made at the bidding of the Almighty. The cherubim were permitted because they were made in accordance with His wish. Man must not arbitrarily make his own laws, and create his own ritual. This must be determined strictly in accordance with Divine wishes.
One may question how the Israelites, who had heard the word of God himself, transgressed the command of making a graven image, and as a result, had to wander in the desert for 40 years. Rambam, in his Guide for the Perplexed, explains: It is not in the nature of man reared in slavery, in bricks and straw and the like, to wash his hands, as it were, of their dirt and suddenly rise up and fight with the progeny of Anak (the giants of Canaan). God, in his wisdom, contrived that the Israelites wander in the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage, since it is well known that physical hardships toughen and the converse produces faintheartedness. A new generation was born which had not been accustomed to slavery and degradation. Leibowitz interjects that we therefore should not be astonished that the generation that had heard the voice of the living God and had received the commandment “thou shalt not make other gods besides Me” descended to the making of the Golden calf forty days later. One single religious experience, however profound, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshippers into monotheists.
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The Torah tells us that the Altar upon which burnt offerings were brought was made of wood that was covered with a thin layer of copper. It is therefore referred to as “the copper Altar” and “the Altar of burnt offerings.” The Midrash states, “Moshe said before G’d, ‘Master of the Universe, You had commanded me to make an Altar from Achacia wood and cover it with copper. You also told me that there will be a continuous fire that burns upon it. Will the fire not melt away the copper and burn the wood that is beneath it?’ G’d responded to Moshe, ‘The fact that fire burns through copper and consumes wood is a phenomenon that exists within the physical realm. However, in the spiritual realm these laws do not apply. Gaze upon the angels. They are composed of a consuming fire. In addition, in the spiritual realm there are great amounts of ice, yet the fire of the angels does not melt it. Fire and ice coexist without interfering with one another.”
Rabbi Yosek Kalatsky comments: The Midrash tells us that at Sinai every Jew stood in a physical state of perfection. Whoever had been previously blind was able to see. If one were crippled, he was able to stand. Those who were deaf were able to hear. This is because the Divine Presence had come upon Sinai. Since G’d is the source of all life and everything that is perfect, anything that is within His proximity is infused with a life force and thus assumes a state of perfection. There is no deficiency within the life force that one receives directly from G’d. Thus, anything that is exposed to His Presence assumes a perfected state. However, after the sin of the Golden Calf the Divine Presence distanced Itself from the Jewish people. Those who had been previously handicapped reverted back to their imperfect state. Moshe had understood that the Mishkan was a semblance of Sinai but was not an exact replication of Sinai. Since the Jewish people themselves were no longer qualified to contain the Divine Presence, directly within their midst, it was only through the medium of the Mishkan that they were able to have a relationship with G’d. Moshe believed that the Mishkan no longer represented the spiritual realm. Thus, it was subject to physical phenomena. Ramban explains that every aspect of the Mishkan reflected and symbolized the setting of Sinai. Thus, the Mishkan was the equivalent of Sinai in accommodating G’d’s Presence. Moshe, therefore needed to be informed that despite the spiritual regression of the Jewish people, as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan itself was an exact spiritual replication of the Sinai setting.
Chazal tell us that before Adam had sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge all trees were fruit bearing. It was only after the sin that non-fruit bearing trees came into being. After the sin of Adam, the world became tainted and thus G’d distanced Himself to a degree from the physicality of existence. Consequently, some trees no longer bore fruit because they were no longer attached to the source of life. Thus, they existed in a deficient state. At the end of time, when G’d will return and permeate all existence, all trees will once again produce fruit.
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Hashem commanded Moshe to build a Mishkan (Sanctuary), symbolizing His presence among the Jewish people and constructed per His Divine pattern. (With the exception of the Golden Calf, the balance of Shemot is devoted to the preparations for, and the construction of, the Mishkan.) The Jews were asked to voluntarily give offerings of precious metals, fabrics, skins, wool, oil, spices, incense and precious stones.
Why was it necessary for the Jews to be accompanied during their wandering in the desert by the Mishkan? Doesn’t Hashem’s presence permeate the entire universe? And, why does the Torah use the words “And let them make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in them” (i.e, and not “in it”)? Rabbi M ordechai Katz explains: While we may learn that Hashem’s presence is everywhere, our intellect can’t readily conceive of this; thus, Hashem provided for a specific concrete place for His presence (i.e, the Mishkan, and later the Temple). But what do we have now? The Schechinah (Divine Presence) isn’t reserved for the Mishkan and Temple — every home, synagogue and house of Jewish assembly which exhibits a Jewish manifestation through prayer, learning, mitzvos (such as family purity, kashrus, mezuzah, etc.) is itself a haven of holiness in which Hashem dwells.
“Speak to the Children of Israel, and they should take an offering for Me [Hashem]”. Why did Hashem need to emphasize “for Me”? After all, who would pass up the chance to contribute towards the Mishkan, and to seek forgiveness for the Golden Calf (according to Rashi, the Torah doesn’t follow chronological order in this instance — the Mishkan was actually assigned by Hashem as atonement for the Golden Calf)? Rabbi A. Henach Leibowitz states that the Torah is revealing a problem we must deal with daily — even when it can’t prevent us from performing mitzvos, our “yetzer hara” (evil inclination) can corrupt and attack even the purest intentions by creating ulterior motives for our actions; it persuades us to do mitzvos for honor and prestige, rather than wholeheartedly out of service for Hashem. If we view everything we do (e.g., our careers, money, etc.) as a means of serving Hashem, we can infuse the mundane with holiness. As Rabbi David Feinstein noted, this is why we recite in our blessing “Who has made us holy with His mitzvos” before performing a mitzvos; Hashem made us holy by giving us His mitzvos — this is our honor.
Why does the Torah go into such detail about the Mishkan, particularly since (unlike the Temple), it was never meant to be a permanent edifice? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the command to build the Mishkan came soon after the Jews had experienced Hashem’s revelation at Mt. Sinai; when Hashem’s physical presence departed, a second stage in the revelation took place — a stage where it is incumbent upon man to actively draw Godliness into the world and provide a dwelling place for Hashem in it. The Mishkon allowed the Jews to transform the physical into a dwelling place for the spiritual. The name of this Parsha — Terumah — has the dual meanings “separating” and “uplifting” — by separating material objects from their mundanity and uplifting them to holiness, a Jew is empowered by Hashem to transform the entire world into one vast Tabernacle; in such service, every step and detail is important.
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The character of Yitro is legendary within Jewish tradition as the non-Jew who joined the Jewish people. However, there is great deal of ambiguity within the Torah surrounding Yitro and his connection to Am Yisrael. In a number of areas the Torah casts mystery upon Yitro, leaving us wondering as to the meaning of Yitro’s enigma.
To begin with, Yitro seems to have at least four different names! The most common name — Yitro — appears throughout chapter 18 of Shemot, the chapter in which Yitro visits Moshe and offers advice regarding the people’s judiciary structure. In this chapter the man is introduces to us as “Yitro kohen Midyan the father-in-law of Moshe” (18:1), and thereafter is repeatedly referred to as Moshe’s father-in-law. From a verse in the book of Shoftim (Judges) we read of the emigration of the descendents of “Keni, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Shoftim 1:16) – a second name for Yitro. Another verse in the book of Shoftim speaking of a descendent of “Chovav, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Shoftim 4:11) tells us of yet another one of Yitro’s names. Our first encounter with Yitro, in which Moshe meets Yitro’s daughters at a Midyanite well and then subsequently marries Tziporah, seems to provide yet a fourth name: when the daughters return from the well, they speak to “Reu’el, their father” (Shemot 2:18). The plethora of names attached to Yitro is interesting in itself, but the issue becomes problematic when we add in a verse from the Book of Bamidbar: “And Moshe said to Chovav, the son of Reu’el, the Midyanite, Moshe’s father in law, ‘We are journeying to the place of which the Lord said ‘I will give it to you’: come thou with us…” (Bamidbar 10:29). Who is Moshe extending an invitation to? We know from the book of Shoftim that Chovav is Yitro, but the beginning of Shemot indicates that Reu’el, too, is Yitro! The simplest explanation seems to be the one put forth by Rashi, based on the Midrash: “children call their father’s father — father” (Bamidbar 10:29). Thus Reu’el is really Yitro’s (=Chovav’s) father, and the girls’ grandfather. The difficulty with this explanation is that is runs counter to the simple reading of Shemot 2:16-22, which leaves the reader to assume that we are indeed dealing with the girls’ father. As well, unless we posit a tacit insertion of Yitro, Reu’el becomes the one who marries off Tziporah to Moshe, and Yitro is mysteriously absent. Assuming that Reu’el really is Yitro’s father, why did the Torah choose to write in such an unclear manner?
Another source of confusion regarding Yitro concerns the question of whether or not he joined Israel. Shemot chapter 18 concludes with Yitro returning to Midyan — “and he went his way to his own land” (18:27). However, Yitro reappears when Israel is about to depart for Israel. On this momentous occasion Moshe asks Yitro to join them on their journey (Bamidbar 10:29-32). Yitro refuses once, whereupon Moshe urges a second time — and the conversation ends with Yitro’s silence. Did Yitro join Israel? Later mention of Yitro’s descendents in connection with Israel indicates that he may have. Many midrashim pick up this theme, leading to the characterization of Yitro as a convert to Judaism. The Torah, however, at one point relates Yitro’s departure unequivocally, and another time leaves us unsure. Especially if we assume the Midrash to be historically accurate concerning Yitro’s conversion, why does the Torah cast doubt over Yitro’s joining the Jewish people?
Tziporah Kapustin, of MATAN learning centers for women in Israel, explains: The purposeful ambiguity surrounding Yitro’s name, and his ultimate union with the Jewish people cries for an explanation. In as much as a name reflects a person’s essence, the first issue deals with the personality of Yitro. Let us assume that Yitro did indeed join the Jewish people. Perhaps the Torah, in its ambiguity, was interested in conveying not the historical truth, but rather the truth regarding the character of Yitro and his identification with Am Israel. Perhaps Yitro, though eventually deciding to join the Jewish people, was initially unsure within himself as to whether he really wanted to commit this momentous step. In that case, Yitro’s actual reply to Moshe’s invitation is unnecessary — the uncertain silence contains the real response Reu’el is portrayed as the parochial father, the “kohen midyan” in control of his personal and communal affairs. With the advent of Moshe, the simple “Reu’el” disappears, suddenly replaced by “Yitro his (Moshe’s) father-in-law, kohen midyan” (Shemot 3:1) — the village priest, confronted with Moshe’s monotheistic religion, becomes filled with internal conflict. The simple phrase conveys the full paradox — he is the priest of Midyan, yet at the same time Moshe’s father-in-law!? Reu’el returns only once again: when he must decide irrevocably whether or not to join the Jewish people. At that moment he is “Chovav ben Reu’el the Midyanite, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Bamidbar 10:29) — the lover of the Torah, son of the village priest.
Through not clarifying details in Yitro’s history, the Torah uses ambiguity to give us a window into Yitro’s inner conflict as he contemplates identifying himself with the Jewish people. In this way, the Torah retains Yitro as a paradigm for the many throughout the generations who struggle over embracing their Jewish identity.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
is week’s parshah, the Israelites are finally freed of the long arm of Pharaoh. Prior to their freedom, they did acquire two very basic mitzvot: the brit milah – circumcision, and the Paschal sacrifice. Observance of Pesach and performance of circumcision are a statement of affiliation with G-d and Israel. Beyond basic affiliation, what’s next? How does a Jew get started on the path of Torah?
The very first place in which Israel learned new laws was in Marrah, Sinai Desert. The Torah states that there “He placed a law (chok) and a statute.” Rashi writes that the law or chok which was beyond comprehension (as indicated by the word “chok”) was the law of the red heifer, that it purifies the impure and defiles the pure. The statutes they learned were about the various laws governing civil matters, as indicated by the word “statute-mishpat.” There is also indication in the next section of the Torah that they knew about Shabbas at that time. Elsewere, Rashi indicates that honoring the father and mother were also taught at this juncture.
What is the source for Rashi that Shabbat and honoring the parents was taught here? In the version of the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy, they indicate that these two laws were not new but had been taught elsewhere. Since the Torah states in our portion that some laws were taught, we deduce that the laws taught were those mentioned in the Ten Commandments as having been taught, namely honoring Shabbat and parents.
Rabbi Yehudah Amital of Yeshivat Har Etzion of Israelwas once asked, “Rabbi, we want to start doing Jewish things. Where do we start?” He answered that our parasha today holds the solution. Our first step in our renewal as Jews should be to enhance our performance of basic laws, honoring the parents and other rational laws which might think are not rituals, but which are in fact mitzvot. The second thing to do is a mitzva which is irrational, such as shaatnez, not mixing linen and wool, or kashrut. The third thing to work on is adding meaning to our Shabbat, because Shabbos is at the center of what Judaism is all about.
The Torah tells us that the children of Israel went up from Egypt ‘chamushim’. (13:18).The midrash explains that the word ‘chamushim’ comes from the root “chamesh”- five.” Only one-fifth (some say 1/500 or 1/5,000) of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. Those who were rich and did not want to leave died during the plague of darkness. Another midrash says: “Why did God appear to Moshe from a thorn bush? Because just as the thorn bush is the toughest of all trees, so the enslavement in Egypt was the toughest of all exiles.” R’ Yitzchak Arieli (author of Einayim La’mishpat) observes: It would seem from these sources that only a small fraction of Bnei Yisrael were enslaved in Egypt. However, for those who were enslaved, the enslavement was bitter indeed. Those who led a good life in Egypt did not want to leave, and, therefore, they did not merit leaving. Those who suffered in Egypt and did want to leave merited leaving. Even Datan and Aviram who had tried to get Moshe killed – after they lost their wealth [see Rashi to 4:19] and felt the pain of the exile -wanted to leave and so they merited leaving.
And so it is with every exile – those who want to be redeemed merit to return to the Land of Israel.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim