“And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert” (Numbers 1:1). Rabbi Ron Jawary comments:’ King David teaches us that a “good person will blossom like a palm tree”. One of the reasons a good person is compared specifically to a palm tree is that it is the only tree that will produce fruit in a desert. Its roots are so deep that it can draw water from deep under the ground. So too, a truly good person is able to do what is right, not because it’s the norm in the society in which he happens to live, but because it is what’s right. In every circumstance and situation, he will draw from his deep roots; he will blossom and produce fruits — even in a desert. This is really what the Jewish people are all about: our roots are so deep, reaching all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, that wherever we have gone, we have managed to draw from those roots and bring blessings into the world. Just look at Israel before 1948 and afterwards! That is why Jews bring flowers into their homes on Shavuot. It is the day we stood in the desert to receive the Torah, and the flowers are to remind us that wherever we allow God and His Torah to enter, life blossoms — even in the midst of a desert.’
“From the age of twenty and upward, all who are fit to serve in the army of Israel, you shall count them (1:1)” Moses’ census of the Jewish people, defined as a count of “all who are fit to serve in the army of Israel,” included only those who were “from the age of twenty and upwards.” What is the significance of this requirement? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains: ‘The fifth chapter of Ethics of the Fathers includes an outline of the phases of a person’s education and life: “At five years of age, the study of Scripture; at ten, the study of Mishnah; at thirteen, the obligation to observe the mitzvot; at fifteen, the study of Talmud; at eighteen, marriage; at twenty begins the pursuit [of a livelihood]; at thirty, one attains strength; at forty, understanding; at fifty, one can give counsel . . .” In other words, the first twenty years of a person’s life represent those periods and areas of his life in which he focuses almost exclusively on his individual growth: the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, and his moral and spiritual development. “Twenty” represents the point at which he ventures out to the world and begins to concern himself with the material involvements of life. Therein lies the deeper significance of G‑d’s instruction to Moses that only “from the age of twenty and upwards” shall a person be counted as one “fit to serve in the army of Israel.” A period of intense self-development and spiritual self-enrichment is a necessary preparation to life, but it must not be seen as an end in itself. The purpose of the “pre-twenty” times and aspects of a person’s life is for the sake of the “pursuit” which must follow: that he or she go out into the world and apply his personal attainments to the development and sanctification of the material reality. One who does not graduate to the “post-twenty” phase of life cannot count himself as a member of the “army of Israel.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
And Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai saying: Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “when you come to the land that I am giving to you, you should rest the land. It is a Sabbath to Hashem.” (VaYikra 25:1-2)
Rabbi Bernie Fox explains: ‘Our parasha discusses the laws of Shemitah. The Shemitah year is observed in the Land of Israel every seven years. The Shemitah is a Sabbatical year. The land cannot be worked. The produce that is produced without cultivation is shared by everyone.The first passage of the parasha explains that the laws of Shemitah were given to Moshe at Sinai. The commentaries are concerned with this comment. Why does the Torah specify that this mitzvah was given at Sinai? The Midrash discusses this issue. The Midrash explains that the Torah is using Shemitah as an example. The Torah is communicating to us that this mitzvah was given at Sinai in its entirety. We are to extrapolate from this example that just as this mitzvah is derived entirely from Sinai, so too all other mitzvot were revealed in their entirety at Sinai. This revelation encompassed both the general principles of the commandments and their details. The comments of the Midrash are somewhat enigmatic. The Midrash seems to assume that one would presume that the mitzvot are not derived completely from Sinai. Our passage is designed to correct this misimpression. Why would we assume that the mitzvot are not derived, in their entirety, from Sinai? The commentaries offer a variety of answers. Nachmanides explains that the manner in which the Torah discusses some mitzvot can lead to a misunderstanding. The Torah does not always deal with a mitzvah in a single comprehensive discussion. Often the discussion of a mitzvah will be dispersed among different locations in the Torah. Shemitah is an example of this treatment. The mitzvah is first encountered in Parshat Mishpatim. Our parasha continues this discussion. Furthermore, there is an important relationship between the two discussions. The passages in Parshat Mishpatim outline the general concept of Shemitah. Our parasha provides detail. Nachmanides explains that the casual reader can easily misinterpret this presentation and conclude that only the general outline of the mitzvah was revealed at Sinai. This outline is the discussion in Parshat Mishpatim. However, this reader might incorrectly assume that the details, discussed in our parasha, represent Moshe’s interpretation and implementation of the general principle embodied in the commandment. In order to dispel this misconception, the Torah explains that even the details, discussed in this week’s parasha are from Sinai. This example serves as a model for understanding the Torah’s treatment of other mitzvot. Even in cases in which the discussion of the mitzvah is dispersed in the Torah, the entire mitzvah, with all of its details, is derived from Sinai. Gershonides offers an alternative answer to the original problem. Why is it necessary for the Torah to specify the origin of the mitzvah of Shemitah? Gershonides maintains that, in general, the origin of the mitzvot is clear. The mitzvot are derived from Sinai. Sinai is the source of the general outline and the details. There is no need for the Torah to reiterate this point. However, at the opening of our parasha, there is a specific basis for confusion. He explains that the cause for this confusion is found at the end of the previous parasha – Parshat Emor. There, the Torah relates an account of a person that blasphemed that name of Hashem. The nation did not know the punishment for this crime. The people appealed to Moshe. Moshe could not respond. He turned to Hashem. Hashem instructed Moshe that the blasphemer should be stoned. In this instance, Moshe was confronted with an issue that he could not resolve based on the revelation at Sinai. A further prophecy was needed. Moshe received this prophecy in the wilderness. The reader might assume other mitzvot were also revealed in the wilderness and not at Sinai. Our parasha resolves this issue. The parasha begins with the declaration that Shemitah was revealed at Sinai. Sinai is the source for the Torah. The punishment of the blasphemer represents an unusual and relatively isolated exception to this rule.’
The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers his insights on this verse as well: ‘ Taken on its own, this verse seems to imply that “a sabbath unto G‑d” is to be observed immediately upon entering the Land. But in practice, when the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel they first worked the land for six years, and only then observed the seventh year as the Shemittah (sabbatical year)—as, indeed, the Torah clearly instructs in the following verses. The Torah is telling us that a Shemittah is to both precede and follow our six years of labor: to follow it on the calendar, but to also precede it—if not in actuality, then conceptually.We find a similar duality in regard to the weekly seven-day cycle. The weekly Shabbat has a twofold role: a) It is the day “from which all successive days are blessed”—the source of material and spiritual sustenance for the week to follow. b) It is the “culmination” of the week—the day on which the week’s labors and efforts are harvested and sublimated, and their inner spiritual significance is realized and brought to light.But if every week must have a Shabbat to “bless” it, what about the week of creation itself? In actuality, G‑d began His creation of existence—including the creation of time—on Sunday, which is therefore called the “First Day.” But our sages tell us that there was a primordial Shabbat which preceded creation—a Shabbat existing not in time but in the mind of G‑d, as a vision of a completed and perfected world. Therein lies an important lesson in how we are to approach the mundane involvements of life. True, we begin with the material, for in a world governed by cause and effect, the means inevitably precede the end. But what is first in actuality need not be first in mind. In mind and consciousness, the end must precede the means, for without a clear vision of their purpose to guide them, the means may begin to see themselves as the end. The spiritual harvest of a Shabbat or Shemittah can be achieved only after a “work-week” of dealing with the material world and developing its resources. But it must be preceded and predicated upon “a sabbath unto G‑d” that occupies the fore of our consciousness and pervades our every deed.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
After the death of Aaron’s sons…” The Torah tells us that after undergoing this personal tragedy, Aaron responded with silence. He did not choose to blame God, Moses, or himself, or to descend into depression. Rather got up and tried to fulfill his mission in life. Despite his inner pain, he devoted the next 40 years of his life to fulfilling his mission and serving God.
We recently commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, a period of incomprehensible tragedy. Yet this day of commemoration is followed a week later by Israel’s Independence Day. Having been through the greatest tragedy in history, the nation that was written off time and time again rose up and built a future for themselves.
Rabbi Ron Jawary comments: ‘2,500 years ago, God promised “I will bring back the captivity of my people; they will rebuild desolate cities and inhabit them; they will plant vineyards and drink their wine…they will cultivate gardens…and they will never be uprooted from their land again.” If we understand these words not just literally, but figuratively, we can see how God is fulfilling this promise. “I will bring back the captivity” alludes to our redemption from the camps of Europe and the Iron Curtain, and “building the cities” refers to the building of the then desolate Land of Israel. The “vineyards and gardens” allude to the tremendous contributions Israel has made to the modern world in terms of morality, technology, medicine, agriculture… Just as Aaron was able to persevere in spite of the tragedy he experienced, the Jewish nation has managed to rise up in spite of our enemies and fulfill our mission of bringing light and blessing to the world.’
Perhaps the most famous commandment in the Torah appears in this week’s portion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt comments: ‘When you think about it a bit deeper, however, the question arises: How can you command someone to love? You can command action, but surely you cannot command emotion. Every system of law demands that people act in a certain way. There is not a single one – apart from Torah – which demands that people feel a certain way. You can be an observant Jew: only eat kosher, pray three times a day, and even wear a black hat – but if you don’t feel the emotion of love when you meet another person in the street, you are missing the boat. It’s not enough to simply “not hate.” It’s not enough even to be nice and helpful to the extreme. Ambivalence dressed up in niceties is not what is required of us. We must get ourselves to feel the emotion of love. I once had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was widely considered one of the greatest rabbis of this generation. When I entered the room, I immediately felt a presence. When my turn came, I stretched out my hand to shake his and looked into his eyes. I could not believe what I saw. I felt, as I feel with my own parents, that this was someone who loved me. The warmth that emanated from him was something I have rarely felt in my life. I am confident that he loved me more than do some of my closest friends. He did not know me. He had never met me. And yet he loved me. This is what the Torah requires.
If Rabbi Auerbach had invited me for dinner every day of the week, sent me home laden with gifts, and told me I was welcome in his home whenever I wanted – but I hadn’t felt that he loved me – I would not have walked away with half the feeling of exhilaration as I did. There is no greater gift than love. When people feel loved, they feel self-esteem, they feel lifted, and they feel empowered. When they feel you want to help them because you are obligated to do so, they will be grateful, at best. Loving is giving in the fullest way possible.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
The central theme of Parshat Tazria-Metzora is the unique case of tzara’at (usually translated as leprosy) in its various manifestations. Some tzara’at appears in human flesh. Some affects a person’s hair or facial hair, and other types can appear in other parts of the body. Tzara’at can even spread to clothes and houses.
Rabbi David Stav relates the following: ‘Of all special halakhot concerning tzara’at, I would like to focus our attention on one particular law. A major symptom of tzara’at in human beings is a white rash appearing on a person’s skin. Once someone discovers the rash, he approaches the priest, who would need to determine if the white rash is enough to classify the individual as being afflicted with tzara’at: “And if the tzara’at (tzara’at) has spread over the skin, whereby the tzara’at covers all the skin of the [person with the] lesion, from his head to his feet, wherever the eyes of the priest can see it, then the priest shall look [at it]. And, behold! the tzara’at has covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce [the person with] the lesion clean. He has turned completely white; he is clean.” [Lev. 13:13] In other words, if the lesion was only the size of two hands, the person would be considered unclean, whereas if the lesion were to cover the individual’s entire body, he would be clean.
How could it be that a lesion appearing in just one part of a person’s body would make him impure, and indicate the existence of some form of a disease, while a lesion or disease that had spread over the individual’s entire body would lead to the opposite conclusion – that the person is clean?! If we attempt to understand tzara’at as an ordinary disease, these verses seem puzzling to us. It turns out that the Torah wants to stress the spiritual and ethical aspect of tzara’at manifested in this halakha, as well as in other places. Tzara’at is meant to warn us of various facets of an individual’s moral decay, including haughtiness and arrogance, envy, gossip and slander of others, etc. Warnings and instructions are meant to be given in the appropriate amounts. At some point, a person becomes either unable or unwilling to receive a message because it is conveyed too forcefully, or because it is so intense, and the message itself loses much of its effect. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch put it best: “Quarantine and seclusion (i.e. the isolation a leper is compelled to endure) distance a person from the Temple and from the society around him. The purpose [of these measures] is to lead to repentance and rectification of character traits. However, it is not hoped that this is what they will achieve, unless moral goodness had still been retained in the person’s consciousness, and can wage war against evil. Therefore, if absolute evil had suddenly emerged, i.e. ‘[it] had appeared all over’, or even if the entire became smitten with tzara’at – during the time a person had been in seclusion through quarantine this is what is meant: the days of isolation had removed any foundations of morality from his heart, so that this isolation does not lead the individual to rectifying his character traits. This is why the declaration of impurity is nullified. Rebuke is worthwhile as long as a person still hopes he is capable of correcting his negative traits and bettering his situation. However, if a person senses that he’s in dire straits, there is no reason to impose any more punishments, and it would be better to simply state that the person is pure.” This is why our rabbis say the following: “The son of David will not come until the kingdom is converted to heresy. …Rava said: What verse [proves this]? It is all turned white: he is clean.” [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a] It would be wonderful if we would merit salvation on account of a surge of the benevolence that exists in each and every one of us. However, at times, benevolence emerges in humanity and in individuals only once the evil within all of us is negated. When a person witnesses the embodiment of absolute evil, he suddenly realizes why benevolence is so vital. This is why everything becomes pure when everything turns white.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer . . . and they died before G‑d (10:1–2)
Bar Kappara said in the name of Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar: Aaron’s sons died on account of four things: for drawing near, for offering, for the strange fire, and for not having taken counsel from each other. “For drawing near”—because they entered into the innermost precincts of the Sanctuary. “For offering”—because they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to offer. “For the strange fire”—they brought in fire from the kitchen. “And for not having taken counsel from each other”—as it says, “Each took his censer,” implying that they acted each on his own initiative, not taking counsel from one another. Rabbi Mani of Sha’av, Rabbi Yehoshua of Sichnin, and Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Levi said: The sons of Aaron died on account of four things . . . : Because they had drunk wine, as it says [immediately following the incident], “Do not drink wine or strong drink . . . that you not die” (Leviticus 10:9). Because they served in the Sanctuary lacking the prescribed number of priestly garments (cf. Exodus 28:43). Because they entered the Sanctuary without washing their hands and feet (cf. Exodus 30:21). Because they had no children… as it says, “Nadav and Avihu died . . . and they had no children” (Numbers 3:4).
Abba Chanin says that it was because they had no wives, for it is written [regarding the high priest], “He shall make atonement for himself, and for his house” (Leviticus 16:6)—“his house” refers to his wife.Rabbi Levi says that they were arrogant. Many women remained unmarried waiting for them. What did they say? Our father’s brother is a king, our mother’s brother is a prince [i.e., Nachshon, the head of the tribe of Judah], our father is a high priest, and we are both deputy high priests; what woman is worthy of us? . . . Moses and Aaron went first, Nadav and Avihu walked behind them, and all Israel followed, and Nadav and Avihu were saying: “When will these two old men die and we assume authority over the community?” Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Aivu said that they uttered this to one another with their mouths, while Rabbi Pinchas said that they harbored the thought in their hearts.
Others say: They already deserved to die at Mount Sinai, when they callously feasted their eyes on the Divine (Exodus 24:9–11).
After this incident, the Torah states: ‘Aaron was silent’ (10:3). The Lubavitcher rabbi comments: “Speech signifies comprehensibility. Melody is beyond language, expressing moods which words cannot describe. Silence is yet higher.
The power to be silent at certain moments of life and of history is an important strength. It expresses the awareness that G‑d is infinite, and cannot be encapsulated in our human conceptions of what should take place.
The Talmud tells of an instance in which Moses himself was told by G‑d to be silent. G‑d showed him in a vision all future generations of the Jewish people, and the leaders of each generation. Moses was greatly impressed by the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva. Then he saw the way the Romans tortured him to death. “Is this the reward of his Torah knowledge?” Moses asked. G‑d answered: “Be silent. Thus it arose in My thought.” This is not to say that the Torah advocates a fatalistic approach to life. Before the event, one must do everything possible to prevent tragedy. But once it has happened, G‑d forbid, through the acceptance and the silence we reach a special closeness to the Divine. Our sages tell us that because Aaron was silent, he was rewarded by G‑d speaking directly to him. In our generation, too, there is a need for this power of silence. It is not a passive power, but one that leads to vigorous and joyous action. The Jewish response to the harrowing events of the Shoah is the determined and energetic action to rebuild Jewish family life and Jewish knowledge.
Through our power of silence we too, like Aaron, will merit Divine revelation. G‑d will bring the Messiah, rebuilding the Temple and bringing lasting peace to the world.”
“These are the animals which you may eat . . . But these you shall not eat of those that chew the cud, or of those that divide the hoof . . . “ (11:2-4) The Torah does not list the animals that have both kosher signs (and are thus kosher), nor does it list those which lack both (and are thus forbidden); but it does name the four animals—the camel, hyrax, hare and swine—that have one but not the other (making them, too, unfit for consumption for the Jew).
It is noteworthy that in the 33 centuries since G‑d communicated these laws to Moses, entire continents, replete with many “new” and unimagined species, have been discovered. A number of these hitherto unknown species possess both of the kosher signs, and many lack them both; but not a single one has been found with only one sign. The only such animals on earth are the four species enumerated by the Torah!
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
The Shulchan Arukh (493) writes: “The custom is not to marry a woman in between Pesach and Shavuot, until Lag Ba-omer, as during this period Rabbi Akiva’s students died… The custom is not to cut one’s hair until Lag Ba-omer.” The Rema adds: “Many places have the custom of allowing haircuts until Rosh Chodesh Iyar. These people should not have their hair cut from Lag Ba-omer on… ” Meaning, those following this custom observe practices of mourning from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot (for thirty-three days, starting from after Rosh Chodesh Iyar). What source is there to limit the custom mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh to the first thirty-three days, from Pesach until Lag Ba-omer? Likewise, what is the source for the custom of the Rema, of observing these practices from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot? Finally, from where do we derive these practices of mourning in the first place? Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon explains: “The earliest source for the custom to observe mourning practices during sefira appears in the literature of the Geonim. In “Halakhot Pesukot Min Ha-Geonim” (97) we find the following letter of Rav Natrunai Gaon: “Regarding your question of why we do not betroth [referring to “kiddushin,” which we perform today at the wedding ceremony itself] or marry in between Pesach and Shavuot: … You should know that this does not involve any actual prohibition, but rather a custom of mourning, for Chazal said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students and they all died in between Pesach and Shavuot… From that point on, the earlier generations were accustomed during these days not to marry.” Other teshuvot (responsa) penned by the Geonim speak in a similar fashion. (Rav Hai Gaon, in a teshuva recorded in Otzar Ha-Geonim 328, adds the custom of refraining from work after sundown during sefira, as it was then that Rabbi Akiva’s students were buried, prompting the masses to halt their normal activities. In another teshuva, cited in Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Sha’arei Teshuva 278, Rav Hai Gaon permits betrothals during sefira, as “there is no joy except at the chupa.”) From the Geonim it appears that the custom only prohibits marriage during these weeks; it does not entail any other mourning-related practices. (Today the custom of refraining from work after sundown is largely not practiced. One additional custom mentioned in the Geonim’s writings, cited in the name of Rav Sherira Gaon in Teshuvot U-pesakim, Mekitzei Nirdamim 69, prohibits making new garments until Shavuot.) Furthermore, the Geonim seem to apply this prohibition throughout the sefira period, from Pesach through Shavuot. The prohibition against cutting one’s hair during sefira appears in writing for the first time towards the middle of the era of the Rishonim. Rav Aharon Ha-kohen of Lunil – the Re’a – writes the following in his work Orchot Chayim: “The custom is not to marry from Pesach until Shavuot, and we also do not cut our hair, out of mourning for the twelve thousand pairs of students… ” This custom appears in the writings of other Rishonim, as well, where we also find sources for limiting the duration of the practices to the first thirty-three days of sefira.
Rav Yehoshua Ibn Shu’ib (14th cent; considered by the Bet Yosef as the original source of the prohibition against haircutting [though, as we saw, the Re’a preceded him]) mentions the prohibition against haircutting and adds, “We shave on the morning of the thirty-fourth day [of the omer], as we consider part of the day as the entire day.” He proceeds to explain the reason for ending the prohibition at this point, one which appears as well in the “Manhig” (by the Ra’avan – Rav Avraham Ben Rav Natan Ha-yarchi) citing the Reza (regarding the custom not to conduct weddings). The Gemara describes the disciples’ deaths as having occurred from Pesach “ad peros ha’atzeret,” which roughly translates as, “until the eve of Shavuot.” Other Talmudic sources indicate that “ad peros” denotes a period of fifteen days, which means that the plague came to an end on Lag Ba-omer. The Meiri (Yevamot 62b), too, records a tradition of the Geonim that the deaths ended on Lag Ba-omer. The Maharil – Minhagim 21b – posits a completely different approach to explain how tradition evolved to halt the mourning practices on Lag Ba-omer. He argues that Rabbi Akiva’s students died only on days on which the “tachanun” prayer is recited, which excludes the seven Shabbatot, seven days of Pesach, two days of Rosh Chodesh Iyar and the one day of Rosh Chodesh Sivan – a total of sixteen days. Thus, the plague raged for only thirty-three days. We should note, however, that one cannot include in this count seven Shabbatot as well as seven days of Pesach, as one of these seven days inevitably falls on Shabbat.)
In the literature of the Ashkenazic Rishonim we find other customs observed during the sefira period, beyond the mourning practices we have already encountered. These include the recitation of special lamentations for victims of persecution and that of “Av Ha-rachamim” (which was established after the Crusades – Magen Avraham 284:7), as well as prohibitions such as the purchase of new clothing. This indicates that among Ashkenazic communities an additional basis for mourning practices arose: the Crusades of 5856 (1096 C.E.), which occurred during the sefira period. (The Crusades were groups of Christians who set out to conquer Jerusalem and, along the way, killed large numbers of Jews in Ashkenaz from Iyar until Av. Therefore, these communities observed the mourning period from Rosh Chodesh Iyar on, the period that saw the bulk of the persecutions at the hands of the Crusaders. (It also stands to reason that they held a tradition that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died over the course of thirty-three days, the identity of which remained unclear. After the devastation of the Crusades, these communities selected the final thirty-three days, from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot.)
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim