Parshat Emor 5781

Parshat Emor 5781

Besides the cycles of festivals and Sabbaticals that give time its rhythm, the world is also governed by cycles that are often not apparent, because one generation does not know what happened in previous generations and therefore cannot understand how what happens today is cyclically rooted in what happened earlier.

 

To understand the incident of the MEGADEF (“blasphemer”) in the closing section of our parashah (Leviticus 24:10ff), it is necessary to understand that “the son of the Israelite woman who was the son of an Egyptian man” was in fact the issue of an illicit relationship. Our rabbis teach that Shulamit bat Divri was the wife of the Israelite whom Moses saw being beaten by an Egyptian the first time he went out to visit his brothers. The Egyptian would daily drive the Israelite out of his home and send him to his labors, thereafter going in to his wife. (See Rashi on Lev. 24:10 and on Exodus 2:11).

 

There is a deep counterpoint in the positioning of this episode in parshat EMOR, which centers on the special purity demanded of the priests. Shulamit bat Divri is the exemplar of the opposite: immorality. While the holiness of the priesthood requires separation and the making of distinctions between pure and impure, fine and blemished, she sought to erase distinctions, greeting everyone with a naive “Peace be upon you, peace be upon you”. As if friendly chatter is enough to turn evil into good. It was Shulamit bat Divri’s endeavor to erase distinctions that laid her open to the immoral relationship which led to the birth of the blasphemer. The latter, however, discovered that, whether you like it or not, this IS a world of distinctions. While the blasphemer was an Israelite through his mother, he had no tribal affiliation, since this comes only through the father. Accordingly the blasphemer had no place in the Israelite camp.

 

Rabbi Yehoshua Greenbaum comments: Contemporary political correctness will cry out in the voice of Shulamit Bat Divri that he should have been given a place — isn’t it unfair that he should be excluded because of a quirk of birth? Endless similar questions can be asked about other commandments in our parashah. Why should a blemished priest not be allowed to serve in the Temple? Why should a divorcee not be allowed to marry a priest? etc.

 

Rashi brings a midrash that the blasphemer “went out” (Lev. 24:10) in the sense that he departed from the Torah: he mocked the idea that the Sanctuary Show-Bread (subject of the preceding section), which was eaten by the priests when it was nine days old, was a fitting institution in the Sanctuary of the King (Rashi ad loc.). The blasphemer could not accept G-d’s Torah the way it is. He wanted to adapt the Torah fit his own personal views.

 

There was a way that even the blasphemer could have found his place. As quoted at the outset, even a MAMZER TALMID CHOCHOM has precedence over the High Priest. If the blasphemer had been willing to submit himself to G-d and accept the position G-d put him in, he could have been saved. But he was not willing to submit and instead he opened his mouth and poured out a torrent of abuse.

 

Over sixty years previous to this, when Moses saw this man’s father striking Shulamit Bat Divri’s husband, Moses knew that there was no potential. “And he looked here and there and he saw that there was no man [that no man would come forth from him to convert, Rashi] and he struck the Egyptian” (Ex. 2:12). The rabbis taught that Moses “struck” him by invoking the Name of HaShem. It was precisely this name that the son of the Egyptian’s illicit relationship blasphemed. Prior to the Giving of the Torah, Moses inflicted instant justice on the father. However, after the Giving of the Torah, Moses was subject to the Torah like everyone else and he had to wait to hear from G-d how to deal with the blaspheming son.

 

The account of the punishment of the blasphemer includes related laws of punishments for killing and the damages that must be paid for inflicting injury to humans and animals. The cycles of crime and its penalties and payments revolve from generation to generation, but this is not apparent to the onlooker who sees only the here and now and does not understand what was before and what will come afterwards.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Achrei Mot Kedoshim 5781

Parshat Achrei Mot Kedoshim 5781

Parshat Achrei Mot describes a very strange sacrificial ceremony performed by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of Bnei Yisrael. The Kohen Gadol takes two identical goats and places Goralot – lots -on each of them: one lot for Hashem and one lot for Azazeil. He takes the goat that has been selected for Hashem and slaughters it on the Mizbeiach as a Korban Chatat. He then takes the goat selected for Azazeil and sends it into the wilderness, to be thrown off a high and austere cliff. Why do two goats, which are almost identical, meet such different ends? Why do two equals meet such different deaths?

 

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the goats represent the choices that life poses. Everyone is given similar beginnings and is placed into similar situations. What differentiates us is what we do with the alternatives we have. Do we take the easier, less spiritually beneficial option, or do we take the option more conducive to our growth as Torah-observant Jews? The goat sacrificed to Hashem represents the latter, harder decision, which enables us to come close to Hashem. The goat has a long, complicated sacrificial process, culminating in a bond forged with Hashem during its sacrifice. The Azazeil goat, on the other hand, is sent into the wilderness. This goat, laden with sin, exits God’s dwelling, where we are most likely to become pure. It represents the alternative, which involves distancing oneself from God. Therefore, the Azazeil ceremony represents our daily struggle to act as best we can while not widening the gap between ourselves and Hashem.

 

Rav Kook uses this to explain a Pasuk in the section following that of the two Yom Kippur goats. The Torah states, “VeLo Yizbechu Od Et Zivcheihem LaSe’erim Asher Heim Zonim Achareihem,” “B’nei Yisrael will stop sacrificing to the demons which tempt them” (Vayikra 17:7). Rav Kook explains this Pasuk based on the internal conflict that exists within life. The demonic worship is the appreciation of the unrestrained barbarity in human nature. There is a philosophic belief that unless one knows evil he cannot achieve truth. Theoretically, the purpose of evil in this world is to help people find truth; however, evil has no place in practice. Therefore, once all sins and evil are transferred to the Azazeil goat, it is sent away from humanity to show that evil must also be sent away. Sending the Azazeil goat reinforces the idea that barbarity, while it must be acknowledged as a part of human nature, is not to be channeled, but rather is to be excised as much as possible. Humanity must be based on good and motivated self-improvement rather than pleasure for pleasure’s sake and the evil that comes with it.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Tazria Metzora 5781

Parshat Tazria Metzora 5781

Rashi begins his commentary to this week’s parsha by noting that the halachot related to the tumah and taharah of humans begin in Parshat Tazria – after those of the animal kingdom were listed previously in Parshat Shemini. This order would seem to defy logic, as one would think that the halachot related to humans ought to have been placed before those of the other living beings.

Rashi quotes a Midrash, where Rav Simlai explains the reasoning behind this sequence. He maintains that in listing halachot, Hashem followed the order of creation – beginning with all the members of the animal kingdom (who were created first) and concluding with man (who was created last). The Midrash quoted by Rashi finishes with an additional thought. If we fulfill the ratzon of Hashem, says the Midrash, it is as if the world was created on our behalf, and we were therefore created last so that we would arrive to a ‘finished’ world. If we ignore the laws of the Torah, we are informed that even the lowly ‘yitush’ – a form of insect – was created before us.

This Midrash and the commentary of Rashi, however, seem to leave us with more questions than answers. First of all, what is the meaning of the Midrash regarding the insects preceding man in creation – and why was the ‘yitush’ singled out among all other insects? Finally, why should the Torah follow the order of creation when listing the halachot of tumah and taharah? The primacy – and responsibility – of man. Many meforshim note that the cryptic words of the Midrash are commenting on the role of man in the creation of the world. Humans are essentially offered a choice. If we follow the laws of the Torah, then we become the central focus of creation. After all, Hashem created this world so that we can serve Him and elevate our neshamot (souls). When one lives a spiritual life, and fulfills Hashem’s master plan, he or she brings meaning to the world and all facets of creation. This would be analogous to a customer who walks into a restaurant and sits down to a delicious meal – with all the cooking and preparing done on his behalf. In this scenario, this elevated form of man, whose neshamah rules over his body, arrived last on the scene during b’riat ha’olam to signify that the world was created with his service of Hashem in mind. The Midrash continues with the logical corollary of this reasoning. It states that if one does not fulfill the master plan of Hashem, he is no better than any of the other living creatures that populate the Earth. The moser ha’Adam min ha’behemah, the superiority of man over animal (Kohelet 3:19, tefilah of Yom Kippur), lies in our ability to control our impulses and harness our energies to a greater purpose. Delaying gratification and harnessing desires are qualities of the human race to the exclusion of nearly all other living beings. Failure to exercise these abilities blurs the distinction between man and the members of the animal kingdom.

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz comments: “The Midrash is reminding us to live meaningful lives. We are not angels – nor were we created to live like them. We need to eat, drink and sleep properly. The Torah mandates that we nurture our bodies; that we exercise and refrain from activities that harm them. During our lifetime, it is our sacred mission to have a healthy spiritual digestive system as well – to extract the sparks of ruchniyut that are inherent in all areas of our lives, and remove the harmful elements. Doing so will result in an elevated living that places us in our proper position as the final element of creation – and the raison d’être for Hashem’s beautiful world.”

THIS SHALL BE THE LAW OF THE METZORA… HE SHALL BE BROUGHT TO THE KOHEN (14:2)

Both the onset and the termination of the state of tzaraat are only by the proclamation of a Kohen. If suspect markings appear on a person, they are examined by an expert on the complex laws of tzaraat—usually, but not necessarily, a Kohen; but even after a diagnosis of tzaraat had been made, the state of ritual impurity does not take effect, and the metzora’s banishment is not carried out, until a Kohen pronounces him “impure.” This is why even after all physical signs of tzaraat have departed, the removal of the state of impurity and the metzora’s re-admission into the community is achieved only by the Kohen’s declaration. The Kohen’s function as a condemner and ostracizer runs contrary to his most basic nature and role. The Kohen is commanded by G-d to “bless His people Israel with love”; our sages describe a “disciple of Aaron” as one who “loves peace, pursues peace, loves G-d’s creatures and brings them close to Torah.” But this is precisely the reason that the Torah entrusts to the Kohen the task of condemning the metzora. There is nothing more hateful to G-d than division between His children. The metzora must be ostracized because, through his slander and tale-bearing, he is himself a source of divisiveness; nevertheless, the Torah is loath to separate him from the community. So it is not enough that the technical experts say that he be marked by tzaraat. It is only when the Kohen—whose very being shudders at the thought of banishing a member of the community—is convinced that there is no escaping a verdict of tzaraat, that the metzora is separated from his people. And it is only when the one doing the banishing is suffused with loving concern for the banished person, that the penalty will yield a positive result—the repentance and rehabilitation of the metzora. There is another lesson here as well: it is not the fact of the tzaraat that renders the metzora impure, but the Kohen’s declaration of his impurity. In other words, no matter how terrible a person’s state may be, to speak ill of him is more terrible still. The Kohen’s saying that he is impure affects his spiritual state far more profoundly than the actual fact of his tzaraat!

Prepared by  Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Shmini 5781

Parshat Shmini 5781

Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests on the eighth day of the festival celebrating the consecration of the sanctuary and the creation of the priesthood in Israel.  What the ceremony illustrated was that the priesthood would be passed down from father to son – something which was not granted to Moses, whose sons did not inherit his role as a teacher of the Torah and commandments.  It is interesting to note that on this very special day, Aaron’s two eldest sons died in the sanctuary as we read in Leviticus 16:1, “when they drew near before the Lord, and died.” In Shemini, we are told that the reason they were punished for their deed was due to the following fact: “They presented illicit fire before God, which he did not command them.” But is it not true that they intended to worship the God of Israel? In no way is their sin comparable to that of the golden calf! And yet, just as many people died as a punishment for their worship of this golden calf as recounted in Exodus 32, two of Aaron’s sons die as a result of their worship of God. Yeshayahu Leibowitz questions the meaning of this “illicit fire” that Nadav and Avihu offered to God.  He comments that if we read the word as written, without any punctuation, the implication is that they did something that they were not commanded to do. Does a person deserve the death penalty simply for doing something he was not commanded to do? Leibowitz explains that the Masorah – the vowels and cantillation added to the biblical text in the Geonic era – offers a certain hint: the word not (lo in Hebrew), in the phrase “did not command,” has an extremely rare cantillation sign called the merkha kefulah, placing a special emphasis on the word. On that basis, some of the commentators understood the sentence to mean “illicit fire which He commanded them not to bring.” In other words, their act was not one about which they were not commanded at all, but was one that violated a specific order for them NOT to act as they did. But, Leibowitz continues that this interpretation may be drash – taking us beyond the simple sense of the words – the pshat.  The literal meaning may be more profound in that it was possible for a person to be drawn to regard the calf as God, even when his intention was, in fact, to worship God. And in the same way, the worship of God itself – if not performed with one’s awareness that he is obeying an order of God, but because of an internal drive to serve God – is idolatry. And this is true even if the individual’s intentions are to serve God. Faith, Leibowitz concurs, is expressed in the acts that man does because of his awareness of his obligation to do them, and not because of an internal urge – not even when he intends to worship God, but derives satisfaction for HIMSELF by this act of worship. That is illicit fire. And those who offered such fire – the first priests in the line beginning with Aaron – and did so in the sanctuary were punished as if they had committed idolatry. We, as Jews, should not transform the worship of God into a means to satisfy our inner urges, but should focus on satisfying what is good and right in the eyes of God.

The Midrash offers alternate explanations as to why Nadav and Avihu were punished so severely. They explain that they longed for a position of authority which the Midrash deduces from the fact that they were described as walking behind Moses and Aaron (Exodus 24:9), as if waiting for their elders to die so that they could assume the mantle of leadership. Perhaps the Torah’s statement that they had no children indicates that they were punished in a fitting matter. They were so anxious to inherit leadership positions that they did not even leave behind children to perpetuate their own names. Another reason offered by the Midrashim, is that their failure to marry and found a family is also in line with the punishment meted out to them, i.e. they died without children. They died because they failed to keep the commandment of being fruitful and multiplying. The element of illicit or strange fire accounts merely for the fact that they died by fire – their death itself being due to other causes.

God is insistent that the Israelite people keep themselves holy and steer clear of all that could defile their state of being.  In Leviticus 11:45 it states: “”For I am the Lord, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, etc.” The Or Hachayyim comments that the Torah provides truth that God will protect the Jewish people from becoming enmeshed in the sin of contamination by impurity. He took the Israelites out of a contaminated environment, in which their souls were completely submerged. If the Israelites will now take active steps to preserve their isolation from such contamination, God will certainly do his share to see that it does not occur again. If, however, the Israelites begin to absorb any of these forbidden things as nutrients, they would revert to the environment dominated by the spiritually negative forces of the world. In such a case, God could not be their companion, as He does not associate His name with such forces. This was the reason that God never associated His name with the Israelites until after they had left Egypt.

Prepared by  Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Pesach 5781

Parshat Pesach 5781

The Rambam, in his philosophical work the Moreh Nevuchim, (3:43) offers a reason for the Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer, noting that Matan Torah was the goal of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. The Rambam explains that we anxiously await our commemoration of Matan Torah (Shavuot) after we have commemorated Yetzi’at Mitzrayim on Pesach. Just as one who anticipates meeting a loved one counts the weeks and days until he sees him or her, so too we anxiously count the days and weeks until we will reenact Matan Torah on Shavuot. 

The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 306), though, poses a question on the Rambam’s explanation. He points out that someone anticipating meeting a loved one will count down the days until the appointed time. He will count five days until the meeting and then four days until the meeting, etc. We, however, do not count forty days until Shavuot, thirty- nine days until Shavuot, etc.; instead, we count upwards. According to the Rambam’s approach, we should have been counting down the time until Shavuot. The Chinuch answers that since the road to Shavuot is long, it would discourage us if we began counting forty-nine days until Shavuot. It is more palatable to commence the countdown by focusing on what we have “accomplished”, one day has passed, two days have passed, etc. Even when we get closer to Shavuot we continue to “count up” because we do not change counting style in the middle of the Sefira.

The Rav notes that the approach of the Chinuch is reminiscent of a parable presented by the famed Dubner Maggid in another context. The Dubner Maggid was asked why in the past few centuries there have been Gedolim who have publicized their calculations when the Mashiach will arrive, if the Gemara (Sanhedrin 97b) specifically condemns those who make such calculations. The Dubner Maggid responded with a parable about a father and son who were taking a trip from Vilna to Warsaw. A few minutes after leaving Vilna the boy asked when should we get to Vilna. The father responded that the question was inappropriate. A few minutes later, the child again asked “are we there yet?”. The father again told him that it is inappropriate to pose this question and he asked the son to refrain from asking this question further.  

Hours later, the father asked the wagon driver how far they were from Vilna and the wagon driver responded. The son upon hearing his father’s question was puzzled. The son asked his father why when he asked the question how far they were from their destination he was rebuffed and yet the father posed the same question to the wagon driver. The father responded that when one is so far from his destination, it is not appropriate to inquire how far we are from the end of the trip. However, when one is drawing close to the end of the travel, then it is a relevant question to know when we expect to reach the destination. Similarly, said the Dubner Maggid, at the time of the Gemara it was inappropriate to speculate about the time of the arrival of the Mashiach because there was a long road ahead. In later generations, though, we are close to the arrival of the Mashiach and thus it is appropriate to investigate when we should expect the Mashiach to arrive.  

Rav Soloveitchik, though, presents another explanation for why we count the Omer upwards and not downwards. He cites the Ran (at the conclusion of his commentary to Masechet Pesachim) who states that in the absence of the Beit Hamikdash and the Korban Omer we count the Omer today to reenact the counting of days after we left Mitzra’im until we received the Torah. Rav Soloveitchik suggests that Hashem did not tell the Jews when they left Mitzra’im the precise date when they will receive the Torah. The basis for this suggestion is that we find that Hashem did not tell Avraham his destination when He commanded him to move to Israel and later to bind Yitzchak “at one of the mountains that I will show you.” Similarly, Hashem does not reveal the place where the Beit Hamikdash will be built in Sefer Devarim. Rather, the Torah refers repeatedly to Jerusalem as the place that Hashem will choose. We, in turn, do not know the time when Hashem will send the Mashiach, but we wait patiently with great faith for his arrival. According to the Rav’s suggestion, the Jews had to count upwards to Matan Torah because they did not know exactly when they would receive the Torah. Today that we reenact our ancestors countdown to Matan Torah, we also count upwards as our forefathers did after they left Mitzrayim. Thereby we experience an element of uncertainty, which is an integral component of religious experience.

 

 Prepared by  Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Tzav 5781

Parshat Tzav 5781

The High Priests were given the mitzvah of “T’rumas Hadeshen” — lifting the ashes of the daily Consumed Offerings – Olot. They were also told to keep the fire on the altar burning continuously. Aaron, the Kohein Godol – High Priest – was instructed to bring to bring a meal-offering each morning and evening. Additional laws were given specifying the Priest’s duties and the portions of the offerings they were to receive as their due. They could eat of the meal, sin, and trespass offerings only if they were ceremonially clean, and only with a Court of the Sanctuary. In an impressive ceremony conducted in the Court of the Sanctuary, Aaron and his sons were installed in their offices by Moshe, with the assembly watching. After the Priests had bathed, Moshe dressed Aaron in his distinctive garments, and anointed the Tabernacle and its contents (the Ark, Table of Showbread, Candelabra, and Altar of Incense), as well as the Altar of Burnt Offering, and the laver and its base (all of which stood in the Court of the Sanctuary). He then poured the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, thus sanctifying him. Finally, the regular Priests were invested with their garments. A sin-offering and burnt-offering were then brought by Moshe. These rites were repeated for seven days, during which Aaron and the sons remained within the Court.

 

The word “Tzav,” which begins this Parsha, means “Command”. It is deliberately expressed in a form that can refer to both the past and the future. In other words, Hashem’s commandments are as applicable today as they were when first promulgated. The rules governing man’s behavior and man’s devotion to G-d are timeless. Consequently, our observance of the Torah should not be marked by tired, listless efforts. When we pray, we should not mumble through the prayers out of habit. Rather, we should remember whom we are addressing, and say each word carefully. The same applies to observance of Shabbat, our Torah learning and other mitzvot. They should not be routine, but rather should be moments of inspiration. We must view the Torah and our prayers as instructions from God on how to act practically. If we do not realize this, and do not actually practice what we say and learn, our words and learning have no meaning or purpose.

 

There was no particular place specifically designated for bringing the sacrifice of the “Korbon Chatos” (the sin offering), in the Miskhan. This is significant. The Korbon Chatos was offered by one who had sinned and now wished to repent. If there was a specified location for these sacrifices, the sinners’ identity would become readily known, and this might in itself discourage repentance. Because the Korbon Chatos was offered in the same place as the Korbon Olah, no one could be certain if the bearer of the Korbon had actually sinned. In this way, the matter would remain a private one between man and G-d, and the sinner would be spared public embarrassment. Rabbi Mordechai Katz explains that if Hashem’s Torah laws deliberately avoid the shaming of others, then we should certainly be careful not to embarrass our fellow man. Chazal say that whoever insults his fellow man in public forfeits his place in the world to come. (Baba Metziah 59a). The reason is a simple one. One can kill a man only once with a knife, but he can slay him many times over with a shameful word. Rabbi Akiva Eiger once invited a poor man to his home on Friday night. At the meal, a beautiful white tablecloth covered the Shabbos table. When the poor man lifted his glass of wine, it slipped out of his hand, and the red liquid spilled over the pure white cloth, leaving an ugly blotch. Seeing the poor man squirm in embarrassment, Rabbi Eiger immediately lifted his own glass of wine, and also “accidentally” spilled it over the tablecloth. As the poor man looked on in great relief, Rabbi Eiger remarked, “it seems as if the table or the floor is shaking, doesn’t it?” He had been willing to make himself look careless (and to soil a nice tablecloth) just to spare the shame of another.

 

 

 Prepared by  Devorah Abenhaim