In many ancient cultures, slavery was a social and economic necessity. In Parashat Behar, the Torah outlines the laws of slavery that would apply throughout B’nei Yisroel (the Jewish people) upon their settlement in Israel. Unlike some of the prevalent practices, for B’nei Yisroel , the institution of slavery would exist only within a carefully defined framework of laws that ennoble the Jewish slave. According to these laws, the slave could not be sold on an auction-block; rather, the transaction must be made quietly and with dignity (25:42). Furthermore, the master must constantly treat the slave with respect. The master could request from the slave only certain types of dignified service – he could never command the slave to tie his shoes or take his dirty clothes to the wash house because these violate the personal dignity of the slave (Rashi, 25:39). For this reason the Gemara says, “Anyone who acquires a Jewish slave actually acquires a master for himself” (Kiddushin 22b).
The parsha also specifies certain laws that apply in the event that a Jew is sold as a slave to a non-Jew. The Torah obligates other Jews to attempt redemption of the Jewish slave as soon as possible. Nevertheless, even when owned by a non-Jew a Jewish slave must be freed at the 50th sabbatical year, or yovel. In explanation, the Torah concludes: “ki li B’nei Yisroel avadim, avadai hem asher hotzeiti otam meeretz mitzraim. Ani Hashem Elokechem – Because B’nei Yisroel are servants to Me. They are my servants since I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d” (25:55). B’nei Yisroel cannot remain in a state of servitude to another person since they are naturally the servants of Hashem. The yovel year at least provides an automatic mechanism for the emancipation of all slaves. Our parasha nevertheless concludes with two pesukim (sentences) that seem out of place (26:1-2). They constitute a common refrain in which the Torah forbids idol worship, commands observance of the Shabbos, and reiterates the reverence we owe to the Beis Hamikdash (Temple). Why are these laws juxtaposed with the laws of Jewish slaves?
Shelomo Dobkin of NCSY explains: Toras Kohanim (9:4, quoted in Ramban) comments that the two verses actually refer to the case where a non-Jew owns a Jewish slave, and the juxtaposition reflects a deeper insight that physical service often produces similar religious practices. In other words, the Jewish slave working for a pagan master will quickly forget his obligations to Hashem, neglecting to abide by the prohibition against idolatry and neglecting his dedication to fulfill Torah commandments. Therefore, the Torah reinforces the essential elements of Judaism – monotheism, Shabbos (G-d as Creator of the world), and the Beis Hamikdash (the national center of G-d’s chosen people). These special reminders for the Jewish slave help him reject the influences of his non-Jewish master. The Seforno (26:2) views this special reminder to a Jewish slave owned by a non-Jew as a metaphor that can be extended to any region in which Jews live under the aegis of a foreign society. Just as the Jewish slaves of old, Jews throughout the world can benefit from these reminders in order to revitalize their dedication to our common heritage.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
Numerous mitzvot appear in Parshat Kedoshim, the parsha that addresses the topic of holiness (kedushah). There is no apparent system that sustains the mitzvot referred to in this parsha. The verses jump from mitzvot between Man and Hashem (bein Adam laMakom) to those between Man and fellow Man (Adam leChavero); from halachot that apply in the Beit HaMikdash to those that pertain to toil in the fields.
Why didn’t Hashem arrange these mitzvot in an order similar to the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, or of the Shulchan Aruch? Yes- in reference to certain verses in the parsha Chazal explain the juxtaposition of the verses . However, in the basic level of understanding the text there is need for clarification of the order of the verses.
The Midrash (Devarim Raba, Parsha 6) portrays how the mitzvot accompany us in all of our endeavors. When a house is built, a guard rail (ma’akeh) must be erected; the placing of a door requires the fixing of a mezuzah. Wearing clothes includes the prohibtion of kilayim (wool and flax); while shaving some actions are forbidden. While plowing and placing seed in fields the Torah outlines how to proceed; upon walking we may encounter a mother bird hovering over her children- kan tzipor.
What concept does this Midrash convey to us? Rav Yechezkel Yakobson, and Rav Re’uven Ungar of Sha’alvim yeshivah explain: When the Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave us the Torah, He desired that it be a Torah of life. Life together with Torah. Not two parellel levels of existence. Rather, Torah that applies every second and in every situation. If the aim is to merely comprehend what is written in the Torah, indeed the mitzvot in Parshat Kedoshim should be arranged according to topics. But that is not the point- the Torah is intended to accompany us throughout life. Life is dynamic and multifaceted; when a person is on a street, multiple issues appear. The person is expected to confront and deal with all these issues in accordance with the Torha. Therefore the mitzvot in this parsha appear in a dynamic and jarring fashion, in accordance with the goal of the Torah. The beginning of the parsha records the mitzvah of striving for holiness. When the Jewish People attain this level, the Mitzvot do not appear merely as a collection of laws. They constitute a unified, harmonious structure of living Torah.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
In this week’s Parsha, Hashem commands the Jewish People: “You shall carry out my laws (Mishpatim) and my decrees (Chukim)” (18:4). It is well known that a Mishpat is an instruction whose reason is obvious to us, while a Chok is a Mitzvah whose reason is not clear to us. For example, we are required to honor our parents and take care of them, minimally to thank them for all they have done for us. Therefore, because we know at least part of the reason behind it, the Mitzvah to honor our parents is considered a Mishpat, not a Chok. However, in the very next Pasuk (verse), we are told, “You shall observe my decrees and my laws,” reversing the order of decrees and laws. Why in the first Pasuk was Mishpatim listed first, but in the very next Pasuk listed second?
Rav Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883), founder of the Mussar (Ethical Teachings) movement, explains that in the first Pasuk, the order presented is the one that can be readily understood – first the Mishpatim and only then the Chukim. It is only natural for that which we understand to precede what we do not understand. The next Pasuk then places Chukim first because it is describing the only way to guarantee a life of dedication to both Mishpatim as well as Chukim.
If a person lives a life of Mishpatim first, namely only adhering to religious precepts because he sees how just and proper they are, then there will come a time when it will not be worth it to simply ignore them. But if a person lives a life of Chukim first, and follows them even though he may not fully or even partially understand them, then he will surely stick to both Chukim and Mishpatim even when doing so may become quite difficult.
Rav Avishai David was a young boy about nine or ten years old when Rav Yekusiel Fuchs (Rav of the small shul in the Bronx where the David family davened) approached him, puzzled, asked, “Why is it that none of the Orthodox shuls are doing anything to address Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)? How can this be? We must do something! I lost my entire family in the Holocaust-every single last one- and we have to go to the Yom HaShoah ceremonies!” When youthful Avishai approached his father and asked what he should do in response to their Rabbi’s invitation, his father immediately responded, “What do you mean?! What’s the question? The Rav said to go, you go! What’s the discussion?” The two then traveled to Temple Emmanuel, a reform temple in Manhattan, to participate in a Holocaust commemoration. They did not enter, but rather stood outside and listened to the memorial proceedings. Rabbi David’s father understood very clearly that while it is definitely ideal to understand everything we do, when a situation arises and we are in the dark, we act first and only then make the attempt to understand. If we do achieve a level of understanding, great, but if we don’t, then we continue anyway. (It should be noted that since this incident the Orthodox community has gotten very involved in Holocaust commemoration, dealing with many of the issues that prevented mainstream Orthodox involvement when the story happened. One of the main reasons for non-involvement was the view that Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples in Yerushalayim, is also a day on which we remember all Jewish tragedies, and therefore Holocaust commemoration should be included in our Tisha B’Av observance. In fact, there have been certain prayers written remembering the Holocaust that are said on Tisha B’Av. This view was very strongly held by Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University.)
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
Why do we count time? What is the meaning of counting our days? What, if any, is a Jewish Philosophy of time? Two renowned writers and scholars shared their thoughts on this topic – Rabbi Joseph B. Soltoveitchik and Rabbi Jonanthon Sacks. The following are some of their ideas to help us gain a deeper understanding of the Omer. First, Rabbi Soloveitchik. In the published Festival of Freedom the very last essay is entitled “Counting Time.” Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his inimitable fashion develops a dialect in his approach to time – that of youth and old age. A young person anticipates what will be and experiences time with great rapidity. He quotes a midrash that says, “At the Red Sea they beheld God as a young warrior, and at Sinai as a gray-beard who teaches children.” Time, for the Rav, is a “merger of past and future, of recollection and anticipation.” This is symbolized by counting. When we count a day of the Omer it only has meaning as part of a continuum. When we say that this is day 14 which is two weeks, this has significance only because of the prior 13 and coming 35 days. Rabbi Sacks, in his hagaddah, has some beautiful opening essays. Two of these essays deal with time – “The Omer and the Politics of Torah” & “Time as a Narrative of Hope.” Here Rabbi Sacks develops the radical change that the Bible offered to our understanding of time. All ancient religions saw God as part of nature. For the Bible, God is part of history. Not only is there a Creator God of Genesis, but also a Redeeming God of Exodus. God cares what goes on in this world. This concept of time is referred to by Lord Sacks as “covenantal time.” That it is our job to imagine a future that is different, and better than the past or present. This is symbolized by the overthrow of the great and mighty Egyptian empire, which, by all rights, should have been theirs forever. Then came God and the Jewish People and we taught them that no empire can last
forever. “The overthrowing of this structure and the unprecedented release of a whole nation from slavery showed that societies are not immutable…Injustice,
oppression, dominance, exploitation, the enslavement of the weak by the strong, are not written into the constitution of the universe…”
These two concepts of time – as juncture of past and future and covenental or
redemptive – provide a framework in which the counting on the days of the omer are given new meaning.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
The concept of Sefirat ha’Omer is generally described in terms of a bridge that connects the physical freedom from Egypt with our spiritual freedom (‘there is no free man other than the one who studies Torah’). Based on the verse in Emor (23:15), which opens the Parshah of Sefirat ha’Omer with the words “And you shall count for yourselves the day after the Sabbath”, our Tzedokim always began counting the Omer on a Sunday. The Chachamim had a difficult time eliminating this fallacy, and on the day that they finally proved the Tzedokim wrong, they declared an annual celebration. One of the
arguments that won the day was the fact that, if, “the day after Shabbos” is to be taken literally as the Tzedokim explained, then the Torah would not be giving any indication as to which Sunday of the year (or even of the Pesach season) the
counting was to begin. Consequently, they concluded, bearing in mind that the Torah sometimes refers to Yom-Tov as ‘Shabbaton’, “the day after Shabbat” must be referring to the day after Yom-Tov (i.e. the day after the first day of Pesach, which is what the Torah is talking about at that point). The question arises however, that if the Torah is really referring to Yom-Tov, why does it call it “Shabbat”, and not ‘Yom-Tov’, or ‘Mo’ed’?
The B’nei Yisoschor explains: To answer this question, we first need to understand the basic difference between Shabbat and Yom-Tov. We need to understand that whereas the essence of Shabbat is what is known as ‘it’arusa di’le’Eila’ (an arousing that descends from above), the essence of Yom-Tov is ‘it’arusa di’letata’ (one that ascends from below). The
sanctity of Shabbat was declared at the Creation, from which time on, every seventh day has been holy. This means that the institution of Shabbat was fixed by Hashem at its inception, and man has no authority to change it. Yom-Tov on the other hand, is determined by Rosh Chodesh, which in turn, is fixed by a Beit-din. And this basic distinction reflects the twin concepts of ‘it’arusa di’le’Eila’ and ‘it’arusa di’letata’ that distinguish between the two. In other words, whereas Yom-Tov was an expression of Israel’s development, a hallmark of achievement in its early nationhood, resulting in a sanctity that was sparked off by Israel, the sanctity of Shabbat was a gift from Hashem, unrelated to their deeds or their level. Indeed, Chazal, in describing God’s donation of the Shabbat to Israel, write ‘I have a wonderful gift in My treasury … ‘Israel received Shabbat, but created Yom-Tov. ( The exception to this rule is Pesach, which Hashem granted us despite our unworthiness, as Rashi writes in Parshas Bo (12:6) – ‘The time arrived to fulfill the oath that I swore to Abraham to redeem his children. But they had no mitzvot with which to busy themselves…. So He gave them two mitzvot … ‘It was Hashem who offered us the opportunity to earn the redemption, rather than we who made the initial effort to deserve it.
What is the purpose of the Mitzva of Sefirat Haomer? Rabbi Joel Grossman comments that the Sefer Hachinuch writes (Mitzva 306) that the Torah is the root of the Jewish people and it is because of the Torah that Hashem created the heaven and earth. The reason Hashem took us out of Egypt was in order for us to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai and fulfill the Torah. Therefore just as we count to any great day in our lives, so too, we count to the receiving of the Torah – Kabbalat Hatorah. The Sefer Hachinuch asks why do we count how many days have passed instead of how many days remain? He answers that by saying that there are still forty-nine days left until Kabbalat Hatorah will show that there is still a long time left before Kabbalat Hatorah and we do not want to do that. He asks, “After the midway point why don’t we switch to how many days are left until Kabbalat Hatorah?” He answers, “When the Chachamim made a format for blessings they do not change it midstream.” Rav Moshe Feinstein notes an interesting observation about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. He asks, “Why by every other holiday does the Torah give the exact month and day?” He answers, “If the Torah gave an exact date people might think that we only have to accept the Torah on that date. Since the Torah does not record a date we realize that we must strive to accept the Torah anew every day of the year.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
After learning how humans become contaminated , the laws of “tumah”, this week we learn how a contaminated person attains the purified state. When it becomes apparent the contamination has subsided, the individual was once again examined by the Kohen, who determined if the recovery has been completed. What then ensued were cleansing ceremonies which took place over an eight day period. The Kohen offered sacrifices, and the former “Metzorah” was reinstated as a member of the Community.
In the fifth verse that we read this morning, it states “and the priest shall command to kill one of the birds in an earthen vessel” and it continues, “over running water”, mayim chayim. We have read of many immersions, why does the Torah specifically mention, in this case, that running water is required? Mayim Chayim, running water, is literally translated as “living water”.
The leper had, for obvious reasons, a very low opinion of himself, shunned and ostracized in his community. There was a very real fear that he might become despondent, and very possibly take his own life. It is for this reason that “living water” was required to refresh and revive him.
“Sichot Tzaddikim” states that he could only be refreshed, strengthed, and revived by the water of knowledge from the wellsprings of the Torah, which is called “living water”.
The laws of Tza’raat apply equally to clothes and garments. A garment may be burnt, and a house boarded up for seven days if they display signs of this contamination. If the signs of Tza’raat remain on the walls of the house, the whole building must be demolished. The parshah also deals with the fact that those men and women who are ritually impure , for whatever reason, are forbidden to enter the Sanctuary, or touch sacred articles. The impure state can only end with the purification ceremony.
One might ask, why must an individual go to the Kohen to determine his/her condition when they find white spots on their skin. The answer lies with the fact that people are NOT the best objective judge of their own character. Therefore, one might consider the few white spots as insignificant, and ignore the fact that they are afflicted. The Kohen, on the other hand, with his training and experience, can clearly see that they are signs of Tza’raat. We therefore learn the lesson that before one can properly judge himself/herself, they should solicit an unbiased opinion from others.
As the holiday of Pesach draws near, I would like to wish everyone a Chag Kasher Vesameach, and a good Yom Tov!
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim