God commands Moses to take a census of the Children of Israel according to their families and their fathers’ household. The Israelites follow this command and do everything that God instructs. Immediately following this census, the Israelites are commanded to “encamp, every man with his standard according to his ensigns according to the insignias of their fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp” (Numbers 2:2). The Alshekh asks the following questions: 1) Why, when looking at the Hebrew, is this commandment phrased as if it applied to individuals, i.e. ish a man, rather than collectively? 2) The Torah, in relation to the tribes, discusses the direction of their encampment preceding the camp leaders. With regard, however, to the camp of Judah, we read about the direction of the camp PRIOR to the camp leaders. 3) Why does the Torah vary the manner in which it introduces the second tribe in each encampment from the others? The Midrash describes that there was some jealousy between the tribes concerning their positions around the tabernacle, as well as the order in which they would travel. God told Moses to tell the tribes that they would occupy the same positions as their founders had occupied when they carried Jacob’s bier to burial in the cave of Machpelah. This is recorded in the Torah by the words “according to the ensigns of the houses of their fathers” (v.2). There are two other areas in which jealousy could manifest itself. 1) The 4 camps, each sharing 1 flag between them could be jealous of the composition of each camp, i.e. the tribes that had been assigned to be part of the same camp. 2) The camps that had been assigned to travel at the rear of the procession could be jealous of those marching in front. Ephraim, for instance, could be jealous of Reuben and Judah, and Dan of all the others. Since the leaders of each tribe could still have felt inferior to the 4 camp leaders, the Torah hints at the positioning of the sons at Jacob’s bier. To avoid Judah boasting that he was the leader, the Torah speaks about “AND those encamping in an easterly direction”, i.e. the other two tribes are described as an integral part of the camp of Judah. Displaying similar sensitivity for the members of the camp of Dan – the rearguard –the Torah, (v.31) states that though they traveled last, it was ‘ledigleyhem’, according to THEIR flags; as if all the other camps were subordinate to the camp of Dan, and not vice-versa. In the case of the tribes Issachar and Zevulun, the Torah writes u-fekudeyhem, THEIR counted ones (plural), to point out that unity existed. Though each one considered himself a separate unit, they related to one another in such a way that each one assumed responsibility for the other’s physical or spiritual well-being (Zevulun providing Issachar’s material needs, Issachar studying Torah and sharing his merit with Zevulun). The reason the Torah writes “the camp of Ephraim according to their armies westward”, is for that it is a compliment to the angels who had become the armies of Israel – as God’s presence is conceived of as emanating from the West (the Holy of Holies being the most western part of the tabernacle).
When the Torah discusses the issue of counting the people of Israel, we learn that this is an act of elevating the Israelites, i.e. numbering them. This was performed through their handing over the half shekel, which formed their ransom money for their sin of the golden calf. This is the reason the Torah employed the term ‘ki tissa et rosh’ – when you “lift the head” when describing their being counted. This is in contrast with the members of the tribe of Levi who had no need to pay a ransom for their soul seeing they had not been guilty of that sin. This is why the Torah introduced the instruction to count the Levites (3:15) with the words “pakad et bnei Levi” – “count the members of the tribe of Levi.” If all this is correct, why did the Torah change its wording when it came to counting the Kehatites and employ the same term ‘Nasso’ when instructing Moses and Aaron to count them? Perhaps the fact that the Kehatites were entrusted with a task such as carrying the Holy Ark and the Table which required them to enter the Tabernacle was a special elevation for them and this is why the Torah wanted us to know this and wrote the term ‘Nasso’. It is a relative term and shows that their function was more highly rated than that of the family of the clan of Gershon, although Gershon was the older of Levi’s sons. The reason that God chose the Kehatites for this task was that they provided “light for the world” in that Moses and Aaron were descended from. It was no more than fair that the branch of the Levites who had produced Moses and Aaron should be the ones entrusted with carrying the Torah, which Moses had communicated to the people. Our verse is careful to say – ‘meetoch b’nai Israel’, “from the midst of the children of Israel,” seeing that Kehat was the middle son of Levi’s three sons Gershon, Kehat and Merrari.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of Maryland relates some interesting ideas in parashat Behar: 1) The primary characteristic of the Sabbatical year was leaving the fields and vineyards uncultivated. Some scholars have suggested that the Israelites were practicing an early form of soil conservation; modern farmers often leave fields uncultivated or practice crop rotation in order to restore nutrients to the soil. A second lesson of the Sabbatical year is derived from the fact that during this time all people, whether rich or poor, had to collect and gather food in the same manner; all were dependent upon what the land would produce naturally. This experience would sensitize the well-to-do to the conditions the poor always faced and motivate them to help support the needy.
2) The Jubilee year began on Yom Kippur rather than on Rosh Hashanah. The Rabbis explained that just as Yom Kippur gives an individual a fresh start, the Jubilee year allowed society a fresh start. Israelites that had to sell either their property or themselves into slavery due to economic circumstances would regain their property and their freedom and be able to start over and remake their lives. It is still customary for many Jews to pay off their debts before Yom Kippur.
The theme of Parashat Bechukotai is the “Tochacha” – a series of devastating predictions of what will befall the Jewish people throughout history – exile, anti-Semitism, persecution, and more.
Yet we know how much the Almighty cares for us, and He never “punishes” without “sandwiching” it with love. So it is not surprising that the “dire predictions” in this parashah also contain hidden blessings.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains: ‘…For example, Leviticus 26:33, God declares that “I will scatter you among the nations.” This is a hidden blessing, because if the Jewish camp is geographically divided, then when one community is persecuted, the other can carry on. Also, Leviticus 26:22 says that when the Jews are in exile, the “Land [of Israel] will be desolate.” This is a hidden blessing, because throughout the millennia – as numerous empires conquered the Land, and countless wars were fought for its possession – astonishingly, no conqueror ever succeeded in permanently settling Israel or causing the desert to bloom. This, of course, made it easier for the Jewish people to return in the 20th century and resettle their homeland – a hidden blessing. God cares for us so deeply, giving us the confidence that in life, every cloud has a silver lining.’
If you will keep my mitzvahs … the land will yield its produce … and I will give you rain” (Lev. 26:3). It’s interesting that the Torah promises an abundance of material and physical blessings in exchange for following the Torah. Most of us would probably expect a promise of spiritual return such as the promise of Heaven, paradise, or eternal life.
Rabbi Ron Jawary offers some insight into this verse: ‘Interestingly, the Torah never makes an explicit mention of life beyond this world. Perhaps what the Torah is teaching us is that we shouldn’t think the world and all the blessings in it have nothing to do with a spiritual life. The idea behind this could be that the physical, material blessings are truly spiritual blessings in that they provide us with an opportunity to connect to the Divine.
The more we understand this, the greater is our opportunity to become a conduit for God’s blessings. In fact, the Talmud expands on this and points out that we all have certain skills and talents, and should strive to share those talents with those around us. In doing so, we’re taking the physical blessings we’ve been given and transforming them into an eternal spiritual connection with God.’
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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 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.
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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!
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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