Category Archives: Leviticus

Parshat Emor (5775)


Leviticus 21 -24

Do you expect perfection of your spiritual leaders?

Do you demand a lot out of your leaders? Do you find that you demand a certain level of perfection in your spiritual leaders and rabbis? Can a leader with defects still be useful and inspiring to the community?

11078623_10153757197976110_119730993_oIn age of the Bible and when the ancient Temples stood, the role of spiritual leadership was held by the kohanim, the Temple priests. This whole section of Torah is related the Temple sacrifice and to the sanctity of these priests.

I come to you today, with my eye drawn to this one section related to the demanding qualities and the harsh disqualifying physical characteristics which pertain to a kohen – a priest. To the section related to disabilities which disqualified a priest from religious service, specifically the odd topic of broken bones.

Though I am not a kohen or rabbi, I am recognized as a leader among many of you. I am returning after some time of being away from the written and scholarly world because of issues relating to broken bones, tumors and surgery; all of which has still left me unable to write well. Yet all the while maintaining my vital active service in my community and synagogue through these limitations. All this has me feeling pretty sympathetic to the priests in this story. But enough about me for now, let us jump right into the lesson and I’ll explain my current struggle along the way.

Now I don’t mean to be presumptuous and equate my work with that of the kohannim – the Temple priests. The role of the kohen was more demanding than any job I can possible think of, not just in laborious physical demands and responsibilities.

I find these thoughts regarding the role of the kohen captured most beautifully by the words of poet David Harris Ebenbach, in the Artist’s Torah:

“In Biblical times, the role of the kohen, temple priests, was an extraordinarily demanding one, and not just in terms of the workload. There was also an expectation that the priests would attempt to do better than a good job – to approach, in fact, perfection in a variety of ways – and that anything that compromised this perfection would render the priest unfit for sacred duty. We’ve seen this other parashiyot where God makes precise and detailed rules for the way a priest should set the temple up and maintain it, how a priest should conduct the sacrifices, even how the priest should dress. Again and again there is the sense that doing things a little bit wrong makes everything turn out extremely wrong.”

The demands upon the kohen were also extraordinary in regard the physical and carnal characteristics it demanded of these leaders. In them, the Torah also demanded a certain level of perfection. And this is what we find described in the greatest detail here in parshat Emor.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of all the ways by which one may become disqualified from the sacrificial service. These laws fall into two categories.

This first category is dealt with in our first aliyah – in our first reading from Leviticus 21:1-15 – concerning that which makes a priest tamei, ritually impure. Such as defiling oneself by coming in contact with the dead, except for the case of a close relative. In like manner the Torah also describes other defiling features, such as shaving one’s head in certain fashions and cutting one’s flesh for the dead. Among this is also includes other defilements and demands, such as those related to forbidden sexual unions: a sexual union with a harlot; or marrying a non-virgin; taking a widow or divorced woman as a wife.

These things are generally understood as clearly being a matter which one has a choice regarding. These things presumably can be remedied, as they are only temporary restrictions. The disqualifications are conditional and specific. This state of tumah which disqualifies him from duty is consequential. Therefore one can restore himself from this state and recompose himself. Even in the matter of forbidden relationships for a priest, this can be solved by sending his paramour away and repenting. Once he does, he can then return to the sacrificial service.

My Hand Xray with Tumor

A tumor was removed from inside the bone of my left index finger, seen here on this xray.

And then there is this second category which starts in our second aliyah – Leviticus 21:6 until the end of the chapter – covering that which rendered a priest mum, or blemished. And in this the Torah becomes even more specific and demanding. We are left to read a number of disabilities which render one unfit for sacrificial service: being blind, maimed or lame; having abnormally long or short limbs; having broken bones. And it also lists other unusual abnormalities which it lumps together; having a hunchback; dwarfism; cataracts; permanent lesions and sores; and even usual disqualifications like having crushed testes makes the list!

This second category of things – those things which are considered blemishes – these are the most striking of all because these things are all matters which a person does not have any choice or control over. These were seen as permanent disabilities, and therefore they permanently disqualified one from their priestly service.

It’s truly astounding to realize that the kohanim were required to be utterly flawless, even in the matters which he has no control over. He had to be free of all these impediments.

This is something which modern readers undoubtedly find shocking, as a form of discrimination. But some of us can almost understand their antiquated mentality of why this was required. Why it was important for Temple priests to be free from these “defects.” Why a certain level of perfection needed to be maintained.

Before I start to diverge in thought, I want to go back and share with you one other precious observation by Ebenbach though:

“Tough to be a kohen, for sure, and understandably – these men were involved in the most important work of the community, work crucial to the soul. What they did on a daily basis could either elevate us towards the divine or, if done poorly, could leave us cut off, bereft. What they did mattered. ”

I appreciate that as an artist he has come to understands the mechanics of the drama and the physical aesthetics, all of which were seen as necessary to facilitate temple worship. He then poses a question to other artists and modern readers in the end. Does an artist have to be perfect to produce art? He concludes that no, he clearly doesn’t. However, one also shouldn’t be riddled with personal issues which distract and get in the way of creating that art.

For a moment I want us to step back into the text to they key verse which caught my interest here. A verse which perks my interest, but which also is kind of a painful subject for me right now in my personal life, quite literally.

In the middle of the listing all these blemishes by which they are disqualified from sacrificial service, we find this listed:

Or a man who has a broken foot |

or a broken hand.|

אוֹ אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁריִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל,

אוֹ ,שֶׁבֶר יָד.

O ish asher vo shever ragel, o shever yad.”

Leviticus 21:20

From this we derive that a kohen who has broken bones may not serve as a priest for the offering of sacrificial offerings. Specifically, having one’s leg or arm broken, as the text literally reads.

Now today in the modern age we don’t have sacrificial worship led by kohanim, instead have prayer’s as offerings. And we engage in learning of the Torah which is led by our clergy. Our leaders are Rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and often characters like myself. And luckily for us moderns, we don’t have so many restrictions upon us. And our responsibilities are quite different. Those of us who work for the Jewish community still do the crucial work of the soul and ministering to people’s needs, just in a different fashion.

Work which isn’t isn’t quite so back breaking, which doesn’t require the handling and dismembering of animals. Thankfully.

The most physical work I ever have to do is the carrying of some Torah scrolls around at synagogue and helping as gabbai during the Torah service. Helping out the clergy at the bima. And caring for the sacred scrolls as we transition between the ritual readings and several high points in the service. In a small congregation like ours, my knowledge and assistance in facilitating this is most often needed. Yet even this has come with some great difficulty for me lately, and has left me requiring even a bit of assistance myself.

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The large post-surgery cast.

For the past few months I been notably nursing my left hand and arm. And I still currently find myself wrapped up in a series of cumbersome bandages and attention grabbing casts. All this related to some broken bones in one of my hands.

This issue all began a few months ago when I started experiencing pain in my left hand. Thinking that the pain was just something passing and being quite used to physical pains, I ignored it at first. Then one day I heard a crack in my hand, followed by terrible pain. And even then I ignored it for a few more weeks. I didn’t see a whole lot physically wrong at first, but then came the swelling. Of course everyone in the synagogue told me to see a medical specialist, which eventually I did get seen by once the condition became too hard to ignore.

In the end the doctors found a lesion growing out of the bone of my left index finger. Surgeons then identified it as a huge tumor growing out of my bone marrow, one which had been silently growing inside for some time. Getting fatter until its expansion fractured the bones in two places on its way out. A tumor breaking my bones, from the inside out.

The doctors quickly scheduled me for surgery, to remove the tumor and the damaged bone. And the surgeon also rebuild my hand from bone fragments sawed away and harvested from up near my elbow. The tumor was then submitted for biopsy, to make sure it wasn’t cancerous. And the hand and arm was then set in place, leaving me all bandaged up as I was sent home for a few months of recovery.

Of course, any of you know me well enough see that I have been just as stubborn and determined as ever during this recovery. I’m hardly the type of person to lay back and take it easy. Though it appears that I have been missing from the written world, this has actually been the most active time in my life both as a religious figure and as a community organizer.

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Walking tour with Beth Shalom of Whittier; on Breed Street, Boyle Heights.

All through this crisis I’ve been planning all my many doctors visits and events narrowly close, just to keep up with my civic and religious duties. And just five days out of surgery, I even had the honor of giving a long awaited tour of historic Jewish Boyle Heights to the sweet people of my synagogue. And then from there jumping right into the thick of the Passover holiday. I have all the while been determined to stay in bed no longer than necessary, quickly returning to the joys of public service. Making public appearances as I’ve been capable.

Now I realized I’m not completely healed. I spend a lot of time teaching and directing things right now, but I’m a lot less hands-on with projects right now. Though the bones are set, I am not completely healed yet.

A reminder of this came a few weeks ago when my dear friend Eileen, who is like a mother to me, scolded me as I took a Torah in arm. It was a Passover holiday service which required more than one scroll, and due to a slip in choreography I ended up with a Torah scroll in my good arm during a set of prayers. Carefully cradled so as not to drop it, and to prevent a disruption to the special holiday service. Though as I turned to face the crowd I saw Eileen rightfully wagging her finger at me and later scolding us guys for letting me do it, in her motherly way of course. She is among the many of you who are now teaching me to slow down and how to accept that I’m not whole. And also how to also be patient with myself, as it will heal in due time.

Now you see why I am so drawn to this reading from our parsha about broken bones, specifically relating to the hand and arms of a priest in public service. Now it’s not that I’m just fixated with this issue of broken bones on my own. This Torah portion also seems to be quite fixated and very concerned regarding the topic of broken bones.

Why is this issue of broken bones so important? And why is this condition lumped up with the permanent disabilities?

For those of you who are part of my synagogue family, we will find an answer suggested in the Etz Chaim Torah volumes that we use for service and learning, found here in the isles. [see Etz Chaim, page 720; also cited by Ebenbach] It can be logically deduced, and so it is also suggested by some rabbis, that in the ancient world broken bones were indeed a permanent condition in most cases. In a world without precise medicine and surgical ability, a bone could not be properly set. And for this reason it would often continue to be a source of pain and disruption in one’s body for the rest of their life.

Unlike my broken bones as a modern person with the benefit of medical science to restore me, the same type of injury suffered by one in the ancient world was prone to remaining a permanent disability.

However, the prohibition against a kohen who has broken these bones is not just a practical one, so as not to have one physically disrupting the temple service. Our rabbis also point to another more ritually significant reason, one which keeps with the theme of sacredness which is stressed here in this sacrifice heavy book of Leviticus.

Parshat Emor is said to mention broken bones as disqualifying blemishes three additional times, when in relation to the animals themselves which are being offered up by the priests. In Leviticus chapter 22 – in our third reading – we are going to see this mentioned in verses 20, 22, and 25. Rashi teaches us that one is not permitted to (1) consecrate, (2) slaughter, nor (3) dash the blood on the altar of an animal with broken bones as blemishes. This blemish rendered the offering unfit at every step of the way, and was considered an abomination. [see Rashi, Lev. 22:22]

It is seemingly understandable that just as G-d required perfection for His offerings, so too He also required the seemliness of perfection in those priests who were appointed to offer them up.

Now before we move on, I need to remind us that we are talking about a blemished kohen only being disqualified from being a priest who could sacrifices offerings on the altar. He is rendered unfit for this service alone, however his state as a priest remained. As long as he remained ritually pure he could continue to partake of his benefit as a priest in eating of the priestly portions, as we see also described for the rest of the priestly household here as the Torah continues on to the end of the chapter.

The sages and rabbis also held that a priest was still viable to participate in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing, one of the highest points of the ancient service. We know very well that the blemished priest could and did extend their hands in blessing towards the people of Israel in the ancient Temple, when it was physically possible for them to do so.

Now there is a rabbinic prohibition, one which relates to the calling up of a kohen with blemishes. A revealing text, we find in the Mishnah:

“A priest whose hands are deformed, may not raise them [to bless the people]. Rabbi Yehudah also prohibits it to a priest whose hands are stained with woad or with madder roots, because the people stare at him.”

כהן שיש בידיו מומין,לא ישא את כפיו. רבי יהודה אומר: אף מי שהיו ידיו צבועות אסטיס ופואה, לא ישא את כפיו, מפני שהעם מסתכלין בו.

Mishnah, Megillah 4:7

Generally we know that the prohibition, both by biblical and rabbinic standards. relates to noticeable deformities. One is prohibited from ascending if they are deformed either from their body or upon their body. The first being a noticeable deformity growing from the body, much like my tumor once it grew out the bone and to the surface of my hand.

This latter case of hands simply being stained, being an example of blemishes caused upon the body; presumably staining his hand dying cloth. A blemish to his body, simply as result of a priest having to take up a trade to help make ends meet. This staining was an occupational hazard and not a deformity. The marks of a working-class man. Yet it disqualified kohanim nonetheless.

The reason given for this prohibition is the most interesting thing yet. Why should a kohen be prohibited from performing his sacred service? Surprisingly, it’s not because G-d simply doesn’t want “inferior” people offering up His worship; a thought which somehow comes to mind for many fundamentalists. No, a more sensible reason is provided for us. So that this person will not be gawked at as they perform this sacred service.

In the Gemara we would later see this prohibition also seemingly extended to feet injuries, speech impediments and even being blind in one eye. All these things which might cause people to stare at the priest as he blesses. Interestingly, in the end the rabbis proved this prohibition to merely be pragmatic, as the talmud would finally conclude that if a kohen was well known enough that his condition raised no suspicion among the congregation then his service was permitted. (See Talmud, Megillah 24b)

Again, this prohibition is purely pragmatic. So that when a kohen ascends to engage in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing – that people should not inadvertently stare up at the kohen. [It is our custom to not look up at their extended hands as they are blessing, in reverence and awe.] Disrupting and distracting from the sacredness of this blessing, which in many traditional congregations is still one of the highest point of our service.

So now let us answer for ourselves, why is this point so important? Why is this even an issue at all? The answer should be obvious to all of us. The truth, it is the awe and wonder of the moment is what makes our worship so very powerful. A great deal of the power of the service is the drama, as it rises and falls with choreographed precision. Prayers with words which are carefully chosen and precisely delivered, invoked to elevate both emotion and spirit.

Yet, our tradition knows how distractible we are as people, especially to anything which we perceive as unusual or off-putting. Be it found in the offering, or found in the person of the priest offering it.

Our rabbis narrow in on this point in the Sefer HaChinuk, regarding our biblical prohibition against the elevation of a kohen with blemishes: [Thank you to Aharon Varady for helping me properly locate this citation.]

“From the root of the mitzvah: Since people ascribe value to activities based on the importance of the performers of those activities. A person who appears imposing and well mannered will find more favor in all that he does before those who see him. In the opposite case, a person who is of low form and unusual appearance will seem unworthy in the eyes of his beholders if his actions are any less than perfect. It is therefore appropriate that the person on whom atonement depends be of pleasant appearance in all facets so that people will attach their thoughts to him. Aside from this, it is possible that in his perfect form there is a hint to certain concepts, for as a person contemplates [the perfect form] he will purify his soul and elevate it. Therefore it is improper for there to be anything unusual in any form in him, lest the soul of the contemplative be scattered due to the anomaly, for it would then be moved from the purpose.”

משרשי המצוה. לפי שרב פעלות בני אדם רצויות אל לב רואיהם לפי חשיבות עושיהן, כי בהיות האדם חשוב במראהו וטוב במעשיו, ימצא חן ושכל טוב בכל אשר יעשה בעיני כל רואיו, ואם יהיה בהפך מזה פחות בצורתו ומשנה באבריו, ואם אינו ישר בדרכיו לא יאותו פעלותיו כל כך אל לב רואיו, על כן באמת ראוי להיות השליח שהכפרה תלויה עליו איש חן יפה תאר ויפה מראה נאה בכל דרכיו, למען יתפשו מחשבות בני איש אחריו. ומלבד זה, אפשר שיש בשלמות צורתו, רמז לענינים, שמתוך מחשבות האדם בהן, תטהר נפשו ותתעלה, ולכן אין ראוי בשום צד שיהיה בו שנוי צורה מכל צורותיו, פן תתפזר נפש המחשב מצד השנוי ותנוד מן החפץ.

Sefer HaChinukh 275:2

Interesting, and also very revealing. The truth is we as a congregation are often quite consciously observant regarding the leaders offering up our blessings. Yes. We hold them to a higher level of accountability. Just as close to faultlessness as we expect in our worship, we also expect this to be embodied in the people offering it up before us. A distinguished person, but not one whose issues are distracting.

We expect the art of our religious experience to shine forth, without the artists being a distraction to the creation of that art.

Yet, in the end our tradition finally comes to recognize that the “blemish” is not always such a great matter of disturbance for the sufferer himself, but for the congregation instead. It lays fault for any exclusion squarely upon us as a congregation, and not on the person himself.

I’m glad to say that at the synagogue where I am a member and teacher, at Beth Shalom of Whittier, we have an inclusive and progressive community. One where unkind gawking or unfair exclusion is unthinkable. We welcome everyone to participate, including those with disabilities and special needs. We find this to be as blessing and not a distraction!

Shmuel Gonzales, 6th Street BridgeAnd this is what I have in mind and heart today. This is what turns-over in my head as I ascend the bimah this week. A thought I keep in mind as I once again snicker at myself, unnoticed to anyone but myself. As I secure my tallit around me and over my ever present punk rock jacket, the one with the anti-swastika pin. As I march forward unlike any other guy in the room: in Doc Martin boots, studded belt, piercings here and plugs there. A queer and ethnic person. A working-class Latino, from the wrong side of the tracks. Imposing only in personality, but a shadow of as man I used to be. Who is now far too thin already from my long battle with chronic conditions and constant threats of terminal illness.

There are so many things about me that are unusual and sometimes breathtaking at first sight, altogether different from what people expect of a “good Jewish boy.” And so many hard issues related to my health and body, things which make me less than whole. And yet the only thing that makes people stare, in loving concern of course, is my brightly bandaged hand and arm. Sometimes distraction remains, but it’s a good thing in this case!

I am coming to realize a truth, one demonstrated by you all. That despite the superficial blemishes people like myself may have, we can still be inspiring and a joy to the community.

For months now I have risen before many of you to say some prayers and help us elevate our worship, burdened with these noticeable casts; white, black, red, and black again. Mostly helping people as I try to be as hands-off as possible. Hopefully for this week is for the last time, bizrat hashem. Thankfully the tumor was found to be benign, I will make a full recovery. I will be back at it after some physical therapy helps helps me get it moving again. But thank you all for your support through all of this. Shabbat shalom!

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Parshat Kedoshim (5774)


Leviticus 19 – 20

Because “I Meant Well” Doesn’t Cut It

As we come into this week’s parsha we cannot avoid the fact that this week’s theme is holiness, Kedoshim means to be holy, to be sacred. Our parsha is named after the key word that leads this parsha, and the leading word in the phrase: “Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani Hashem eloheichem / You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, am holy.” (Levitcus 19:2)

We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often trusting us to blindly to lead them. If we misadvise someone, its just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall

“We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we mis-advise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall”

The Torah begins to detail what it means to be holy. Respecting your parents, and observing Shabbat. (v. 3) Not making worthless idols, but instead showing respect for the sacred service of Hashem. (v. 4) This all keeps in mind with lofty sacredness we normally associate with religion and tradition. (v. 5-8)

But then our Torah immediately begins to challenge us with addition demands which are not so heavenly, but instead focused on the way we treat other people. The Torah suggest that part of holiness is displayed by how care for our fellow man. At this time we are also commanded to leave behind some of the remaining crops after the harvest, and to leave the corners of the field so that they can be collected by the poor, and the stranger – the ger the resident alien (or the convert). (v. 10-11)

And then the Torah makes even more demands, ones of an ethical nature. That we do not steal, that we do not falsely deny people their property or deny our true intentions. That we not lie to our fellow. (v. 11) Lest we believe these demands are merely good civil suggestions, we see that our Torah presses the issue of honesty as being a matter of spiritual significance.

We cannot be dishonest with our fellow and expect that it to not eventually have mirroring consequences for how we respect the creator of man – Hashem our G-d. We are told that we should not be false because it can inevitably lead to one falsely swearing or testifying by G-d’s Name, and thereby, “chilul Hashem eloheichem / profane the Name of your G-d.” (v. 12)

This part of the Torah is elementary for every Jew. We understand that we are to deal fairly and honestly in all our dealing because our actions can lead to the desecration of G-d’s Name. It’s more than just taking a false oath and testifying dishonestly after swearing by G-d. We also understand that as Jews, as religious Jews, our actions have consequences. Acting poorly reflects badly upon our faith and diminishes people’s respect for our G-d. We drag G-d’s Name down into the muck with us when we act unethically.

Simply put, the command to be holy is so important because the world cannot comprehend our G-d as holy if the people who claim to represent Him act appallingly. This call of holiness is not just a demand for us to rise to holiness, but also a stern warning not to diminish the holiness of our righteous G-d through our actions.

So what are we next warned again? We are further commanded not oppress our fellow. To not rob them. And to not withhold the wages of the workers. (v. 13) The Torah talks about paying a laborer in the manner of a day laborer, at the end of the day and not stiffing them or holding out.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the plight of the many immigrants to this country who are most often oppressed, robed of all they have on their road to freedom, and then upon arrival most often exploited in employment because of their illegal status. Day laborers in this country are openly exploited in some of the most appalling ways.

The strangers in our midst – the ger, the immigrant and the convert – this is most often their reality. Being unfamiliar with our ways and at the mercy of the suggestions of others they are taken advantage of by not just the locals, but most often by other immigrants who insincerely swear they are merely looking out for this person’s best interests. But even if its obvious that is not true, the stranger isn’t in a position to defend themselves and therefore just learn to deal with it. As people siphen these laborers dough and resources. I see things like this near everyday in the barrio, with inappropriate demands and unfair pay. As I see it, the Torah’s commands are no less relevant to us today.

Before we move on, I would hope that we all make a commitment to deal fairly with all workers, both with our own citizens and the strangers in our midst. Even day laborers are entitled to a fair and timely wage according to our Torah!

However, today we are going to focus on the final verse of our first aliyah, verse 14. This next commandment related to holiness is the least understood of these statements. It reads:

“Do not not curse a deaf person.

Do not place a stumbling block

before a blind person.

You shall fear your G-d – I am Hashem.

| Lo-tekalel cheresh

| velifnei iver lo

| titen michshol

| veyareta me’Eloheicha ani Hashem

Leviticus 19:14

The placement of these commands should make sense to us. We have talked about the poor, the stranger, the laborer, and now it deals with the disabled. Specifically the deaf and the blind. That one should not curse them, nor be tricksters with them. One might ask themselves who would be cruel to a person and take advantage of them based on their condition? You would be surprised the callousness some people have. It should be severely obvious to us, we are commanded do not to mistreat the disabled.

Because it is also unthinkable to our rabbis that people should be so overtly cruel, the rabbis have tried to focus more deeply upon this message to make us realize that this commandment can also apply to each of us in more subtle ways.

Our sages are of the opinion that it is unthinkable for us to curse any living person, let alone a deaf person. That when the Torah makes this command it is merely to double reinforce this for their benefit! So our rabbis pretty much walk away from this saying not to curse anyone, but especially not the deaf. Because they can’t hear you, it’s cruel and unfair.

I agree with the sages on this. Our rabbis tend to see all of this verse in a more symbolic manner. They further draw ethical lessons from these verses for the benefit of all people. This has also been my understanding as I read these verses.

For example, the first phrase of our statement “do not curse a deaf person” also has figuratively meant to me to not get angry with people when they cannot hear what you are saying. When they just don’t have the ears to hear, they just aren’t capable of listening or giving heed to better advice.

Rashi’s advice also seems to follow a similar line of logic as we continue with the commentary for this verse, regarding the blind. The Rashi for the blind reads:

You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person: Before a person who is ‘blind’ regarding a matter, you shall not give advice that is improper for him. [For instance,] do not say to someone, ‘Sell your field and buy a donkey [with the proceeds],’ while [in truth] you plan to cheat him [by advising him to sell his field for a very low price for your own purpose,] since you yourself will take the field from him [for this low price].”

ולפני עור לא תתן מכשל: לפני הסומא בדבר לא תתן עצה שאינה הוגנת לו, אל תאמר מכור שדך וקח לך חמור, ואתה עוקף עליו ונוטלה הימנו:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

Rashi likens a person who is knowledgeable and clueless in a matter to one who is blind, for a person is indeed “blind” in that matter. When one can’t see for themselves what is true and what isn’t. They can’t see the path or dangers ahead, so they are dependent upon us to help them navigate that path. Since our trusted advice leads the way, it’s no less cruel to trip people up with advice than it is to physically stick out your leg and cause them to stumble. Sometimes our bad advice, that can be a stumbling block to others.

Rashi even outright tells that based on this command we are forbidden from giving advice that is improper for a person. We are commanded to keep in mind the best interest of the person, and not our own interests. Rashi tells us we are forbidden from giving advice which benefits us, instead of the person we are advising. That we benefit, as they stumble.

Furthermore, our rabbinic tradition seems to suggest to us that we should not be loose with handing out advice for which we have a financial interest in. Rashi makes this example, its like giving bad real estate advice to the needy, when your intention is to make a steal by acquiring their property below market value. Our rabbis thereby would suggest it is inappropriate for us to go around giving advice for which we have personal and special interests in, for which we ourselves profit.

Why not? Simply because it’s nearly impossible to be objective in one of those situations. That should be obvious.

Personally, I don’t necessarily like giving out personal advice to people. I always wait until asked, and I am always pensive about my responses. Making sure to keep in mind the situation and needs of the person I’m talking to. And always trying to leave my own interest out of it. But more often than not, I’m usually simply listening to people and helping them figure how to pick and approach the best of the choices present in their lives.

Honestly, I prefer to give my personal advice to people privately. As the internet is rife with people who loosely hand out advice on things. People who give you hokey advice, then want to “click here” to buy into it.

Personally I strive not to be one of them. I hope to share the personal knowledge I have, so that people can make better choices for themselves. But I believe the Torah herein tells us to be careful regarding our intentions when we suggest things to others.

Now the Internet personalities out there most certainly get upset when you pose it that way. Because it is very easy for one to snap back, “But you don’t know my intentions!” Precisely one cannot truly judge another person’s intentions, that’s another reason yet why we should restrain ourselves:

And you shall fear your G-d: [Why is this mentioned here?] Because this matter [of misadvising someone] is not discernible by people, whether this person had good or evil intentions, and he can avoid [being recriminated by his victim afterwards] by saying, ‘I meant well!’ Therefore, concerning this, it says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d,” Who knows your thoughts!’ Likewise, concerning anything known to the one who does it, but to which no one else is privy, Scripture says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d.’” – [Torath Kohanim 19:34]

ויראת מאלהיך: לפי שהדבר הזה אינו מסור לבריות לידע אם דעתו של זה לטובה או לרעה, ויכול להשמט ולומר לטובה נתכוונתי, לפיכך נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך המכיר מחשבותיך. וכן כל דבר המסור ללבו של אדם העושהו ואין שאר הבריות מכירות בו, נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

One of the reasons we need to keep from doing anything that looks inappropriate in our dealings with others is because they have no way at all of knowing our intentions. For in such a case, when things go sour, what is else can one say? Other than, “I meant well!” and, “I had the best intentions!” But the truth is that is insufficient of a statement. In fact Rashi and our rabbis would suggest that is merely a knee-jerk way of avoiding recrimination.

Rashi instead speaks to a person who uses such an excuse through this last clause, saying that you should fear G-d. Because He really does know whats going on inside your head, and in your heart. Therefore fear G-d – or more appropriate, show respect for G-d – and know that He is privy to your private thoughts. One should consider if their intentions are really so pure, or if they are instead colored by personal bias or financial interest. And be aware that even when we don’t consciously recognize it, G-d does know and will judge us accordingly. G-d seeing all the factors, even the ones we choose to leave out and ignore.

When we do things that are inappropriate and non-transparent we not only jeopardize our own sacredness, but we also profane the Name of G-d. When we engage in things that may appear inappropriate we show a shocking lack of respect for G-d, not just for man.

Lesson of the Week: We ought to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we misadvise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall.

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Parshat Acharei Mot (5774)


Leviticus 16 – 18

What Cooking Teaches Us About Ritual Purity

Meat CholentHave you ever had to make a savory dish like a roast or cholent, and find yourself first searing the meat before you utilize it for your dish? Ever wonder why you do that? Chefs seem to encourage this practice for the same reason some halachic commentators suggest this, but with a different intent. This week we get a rabbinic cooking lesson.

Previously we have been dealing with issues of ritual purity, what makes something tahor (ritually pure) and what makes something tumah (ritually impure). Leviticus has given us some pretty complex rules about what makes animals and people ritually pure, but now it is going to define what makes food fit and appropriate (kasher/kosher). Now if you have been following the parshashiot for the past few weeks you remember that we already dealt with issues of what makes something kosher. We were given the means to identify which species of living creatures are appropriate. We are also given a stern warning regarding their blood. In Leviticus chapter 7 we read:

You shall not eat any blood

in any our your dwellings,

be it from a bird or an animal.

Any person (soul)

who eats blood

shall have his soul cut off

from among his people.”

וְכָלדָּם לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, |

בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, |

לָעוֹף, וְלַבְּהֵמָה. |

כָּלנֶפֶשׁ, |

אֲשֶׁרתֹּאכַל כָּלדָּם— |

וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, |

מֵעַמֶּיהָ.|

Leviticus 17:26-27

Not to over simplify, but in general anything that is permitted to be offered as a sacrifice is also appropriate for human consumption. However, there is one specific thing that we are told to be careful not to consume from them, like their blood. So paramount is this command that we will see it reiterated for us here in this parsha as well, with the entirety of chapter 17 being about the issue of the consumption of blood. This is point that is often missed by readers, who wonder why it brings this up now. One can wonder, why does it bring up eating blood during a section about sacrifices and why closely after the issues of ritual purity?

In the past few weeks we dealt with the issues of purity relating to animals, we learned which are ritually clean for eating and sacrifice. We also learned about the purity of the human animal, studying the different physical conditions and ailments which also cause ritual impurity. Of course one of the most common among them are issues of blood. When one is considered ritually impure and untouchable while a person is in a state of bleeding, be it from wound or even natural states such as nidah (females issues). For blood where to continuously flow from a person, they are unclean and anything that flow touches becomes unclean as well. Garments maybe be laundered, but in some cases other items must be burned as the impurity cannot be expunged.

But this is a general principle related to ritual purity, that when blood leaves its natural place in the body it becomes a source of impurity. It renders a person unable to worship in the temple cult of the Mishkan.

This is something that people seem to understand but not really grasp, especially walking into the book of Leviticus where the whole topic sees to revolve around ritual sacrifice, with the offering up of flesh (basar, meat) and blood. Depending on the offering the flesh is either entirely burned, or a portion is taken to be eaten; depending on the form of sacrifice and offering being performed. However, during sacrifice the blood is always dashed upon the altar and never eaten. (Leviticus 7:6)

In this week’s parsha we get a deeper look into the significance of blood, and along the way we are instructed in how to deal with blood. All of chapter 17, which makes up the fourth reading and half the fifth reading, is about how to deal with blood. The fourth aliyah tells us that anyone who bring a sacrifice are required to have to blood brought forward to the altar. To not do so is to be treated as though that man shed human blood, and he is therefore guilty of a capital crime. (Leviticus 7:4) The blood is to be burned up, being drowned out by the fragrance of the burning fat of the meat rising to the heavens.

The Torah makes it clear, anyone who does not bring a sacrifice to the door of the tent, thereby allowing the blood to be offered up, will find his soul cut-off from among their people. This is true for the Israelite as much as the ger, the convert or the resident stranger. (v.10)

Likewise we are also told almost exactly the same thing for people when it comes to the consumption of blood. As our text ultimately demands:

Therefore, I said to the children of Israel:

None of you shall eat blood,

and the stranger who sojourns among you

shall not eat blood.”

| Al-ken amarti livnei Yisra’el

| kol-nefesh mikem lo-tochal dam

| vehager hagar betochechem

| lo-yochal dam

Leviticus 17:12

This is they key verse for this week. And this is indeed the central mitzvah which observant Jews focus in on while reading this parasha. This is really what it all boils down to, we must not eat blood. No one among Israelite society is to consume blood, native and stranger alike.

The Torah makes it pretty clear in the verses leading up to here, that this is a paramount commandment. This is not something that we should take lightly. It also gives us one of the reasons why. As we read:

And any man of the House of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My attention upon the soul who eats the blood, and I will cut him off from among his people.

For the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I have therefore given it to you [to be placed] upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul.”

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר יֹאכַל כָּל דָּם וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת אֶת הַדָּם וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתָהּ מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְכַפֵּר עַל נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר:

Leviticus 17:10-11

I state that this is one of the reasons, because our sages make note that this is not the only reason why are not allowed to eat blood. We do not abstain from eating blood merely because it is used in the temple rituals of atonement. There is nothing mystical about it. Instead there is something very natural, simply respecting that it is the blood which gives life to living flesh.

This is reiterated for us in summation found in text and in the chumash commentary for verse 14:

For [regarding] the soul of all flesh its blood is in its soul, and I said to the children of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the soul of any flesh is its blood all who eat it shall be cut off.”

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל דַּם כָּל בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא כָּל אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת:

Leviticus 17:14

Rashi further simplifies for us, “Damo hu b’makom hanefesh, shehanefesh taluyah bo / The blood is the place of the living soul, because the soul is dependent upon it.”

The blood is something that is sacred, because life flows through it. But unlike many cults of the world, we do sanctify the consumption of it. Instead we hold it so sacred that we do not eat it in any fashion. Jewish law is very detailed in prescribing how we avoid the consumption of blood, this is a central component of kashrut.

But why should we deal with this topic now? Why discuss it here among these parashiot? How does this relate to the other forms of impurity?

Simply put, the issues of blood purity and consumption of blood are not at all dissimilar. They both rely on a certain concept. That once blood has left its natural place in the body it becomes corrupt and dies, and thus it causes tumah – it transmits defilement upon being touched. So too when consumed.

The fact is that blood is a natural part of slaughter, but it is not natural for us to consume it. This dead blood was understood to cause harm. Our Torah tells us what to do with the blood. The blood of animals is treated with respect. The lifeblood of the animal after slaughter is to be poured into the dirt and covered. This is the way it is described when we are learn the “rules of the hunt” concerning trapping wild birds, for example. (v.13)

Most of us understand what this means for the process of slaughtering and the handling of kosher meat, as we know it today. The animal is ritually slaughtered, the animal is drained of blood, the meat is salted and soaked. In fact today meat which is kasher is over-salted.

What do I mean by over-salted? As we know korbanot – the sacrificial offerings were always salted. However, today we salt the meat a longer period of time and with the soaking remove any pooling blood that might have been displaced in the meat. The coarse salt – commonly known as kosher salt because it is commonly used for this purpose – it aids on the removed of the surface blood by drawing it to the surface, to be washed away in the soaking. Thus we do not consume blood. This is the standard by which we hold today.

Traditionally, as with the ancients, they seem to take extra care when handling their meat. Though it was undoubtedly bled, washed and salted they also applied one other step. They actually kashered their meat with a very different step than the cold water washing of today, they insisted upon chalitat basar – the scalding of meat.

Though the process is not well understood, this principle of halacha is prescribed and detailed for us in the meticulous code of the Misheh Torah by the Rambam. There he instructs us how to kasher in this methodology:

“How is it done? Rinse the meat initially. Afterwards, salt it very well. Leave it in its salt for the length of time it takes to walk a ‘mil.’ Afterwards, rinse it very well until the water turns clear and then immediately throw it into boiling water, not warm. [This is done] in order that the water will ‘close it up’ so that the blood will not come out.”

אין הבשר יוצא מידי דמו אלא אם כן מולחו יפה יפה, ומדיחו יפה יפה. כיצד עושה: מדיח הבשר תחילה, ואחר כך מולחו יפה יפה, ומניחו במלחו כדי הילוך מיל; ואחר כך מדיחו יפה יפה, עד שייצאו המים זכים; ומשליכו מיד לתוך מים רותחין, אבל לא לפושריןכדי שיתלבן מיד, ולא ייצא דם.

Mishneh Torah, Ma’achalot Asurot 6 § 10

Instead of the meat being salted for an entire hour, as is our halacha and minhag today, we are told here that meat was traditionally salted for 18-minutes (the time it takes to walk a Roman mile). However, in order to remove the rest of the blood and to seal the meat the Rambam prescribes chalitah – blanching.

During the process of chalitat basar meat is throw into boiling water, not mere lukewarm water. It is scalded in boiling water, utilized for both removing blood into the water and also sealing any blood-like juices into meat. The meat is thus blanched until is appears white on the outside, and then it is kasher – it is fit for consumption. The water is then tossed and not consumed, as discussed earlier.

Not what purpose what does this method suggested by the Rambam have? It may not seem apparent to most of us, as we most often think in terms of just not eating meat with blood inside of it. But Jewish tradition, as suggested by the text of this parsha, it suggest to us that the historic practice was actually more skewed towards the avoidance eating blood on its own own. Abstaining from eating blood as a separate entity.

Let us think in terms of cooking meat in water as the Rambam describes. Say we were making a soup or a stew, and we threw meat into the water while it was still cold or lukewarm. The meat will noticeably drain what ever fluids inside of it into the water. What ever blood might appear to be in the meat, it will drain into the water and thus color it red with its presence. To eat this, this would also be a transgression of the Torah’s prohibition to not eat blood in the most literal sense.

By scalding the meat the pores and surface of the meat is sealed, allowing the juices to remain inside. The water used for the blanching is then tossed out and the meat can then be prepared in what ever method afterward without fear of consuming the blood of the animal which one eats.

Thus we avoid eating blood, as a separate entity itself.

Now today we don’t have to worry about this as much as in prior days, so we do not regularly take this extra step. As stated, the salting period is longer and removes what ever remaining amount of stagnant blood in a much more efficient fashion. In the next half-century years after the Rambam the method of chalitat basar would be abandoned by many as halacha moved beyond that to our current methods, which we hold to be more efficient. Even the Shulchan Aruch would eventually rule the blanching method to be insufficient. (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 73; Rema, Yoreh Deah 67)

That is not to say that there are not those who do hold by the laws of chalitat basar to this day. There are people who contest that this is not just some complex chumrah and that since it is found in the codes of the Rambam it is something that must be maintained. However one feels about the development of the halachic process since the 10th century, we must keep in mind we are not allowed to just negate our mesorah and roll back to this method. In defense of the common Judaism practice of today I most point out the Mishneh Torah is said to contain laws that are not just practical today, but also those which will be re-instituted in the age to come – in the days of Mashiach, during the future Messianic age.

Simply put, it doesn’t apply to us today. But it sure gives us a lot to think about. The length that our tradition goes to avoid the consumption of blood, and to respectfully return it back to sacredness of the earth.

So what of this scalding method? For good cooks this method does not come as much of a surprise. Indeed in order to protect the moisture and the flavor of meat, most chefs do a similar process on meats before making a dish such as a stew or a casserole. But instead of boiling the meat, most often people brown the outside of the meat in a pan. The browning is not just about adding the right texture and firmness, but it also an important step needed for sealing the outside in order to keep the natural juiciness inside the meat.

As we are coming into the holiday of Pesach, we are often consumed with the issues of kashrut. That this parsha is among the ones that make us consider what makes food kosher is timely for us, at a time of the year when we are obsessed with just that. Removing the chametz from the house, and quite often replacing items in our kitchens to meet the challenges. Reviewing the laws of kashrut is apropos to the Passover season for all religious Jews.

As we start this Passover week I find myself like many of you, physically and mentally stretched to the limit. In fact this year comes with a few more physical challenges which become amplified by the stress and strain of the holiday rush. Overwhelmed by the demands of this holiday season, and the extra complexities it sets upon keeping kosher.

But then I have my many friends who are not as observant or are new to Judaism, who look at all the effort that many of us put into the Passover holiday and they get discouraged. That all they can do is abstain from bread and the like.

Some get embarrassed that they aren’t able to keep as strictly kosher as they would like. So before we end this lesson I want us to remember that kashrut is not an all or nothing deal.

Some of us, just out of natural sensitivity know to abstain from things like eating blood or eating forbidden creatures. We all have a spark of this kosher soul inside of us, even if we don’t realize it yet. We have certain things that are to our merit, if we consider it.

Yes, we should all strive for kosher living. But we ought not feel defeated if we still fall short in certain areas.

In closing I would like leave us with some words paraphrased from the sichas of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. I think this entry says it the best:

The Torah records the laws of forbidden reptiles and insects of the ground after the laws of forbidden animals, fish and birds, in order to hint that even those Jews who are on a low spiritual level, and do not observe the Dietary Laws, would still avoid eating snakes and insects and ‘would not defile themselves [by eating] creeping creatures like the other nations.’ (Rashi to Lev. 11:46)

Here we see, once again, that however low a Jew may stumble in the service to G-d, evidence can still be found of his unique Jewish character, and his inner desire to return to G-d.”

Based on Sichas Shabbos, Parshat Shemini 5743

Kol Menacham Chumash, Gutnik Edition, P. 697

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Parshat Tazria (5774)


Leviticus 12-13

Purity is About Having Awe and Humility

Does your spiritual practice still leave you struck with awe and wonder? Do you still approach your religious devotion in a way which shows humility? Essentially that is what the topic of ritual purity is about. And that is what we are going to discuss this week, ritual purity. As it will be the central topic these next few parashiot.

Pillar of Smoke and FireBut before we get there we need to catch ourselves up on this topic. The topic of ritual purity is certainly complicated, but it doesn’t need to be something that we avoid or shy away from. We just need to pick up this story where we have left off.

In last week’s parsha study we learned about the seven-day inauguration of the Mishkan (the tabernacle). And then we presumably stepped into the eighth day, the first day it is open for regular business. And on that day Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), lay dead by an act of G-d. Just as fire had also consumed the offerings after the end of the seven days, so too fire came down and consumed these two men for bringing some sort of aish zara – extraneous fire – into the holy grounds, there on the eighth day.

In response to this the narrative is interrupted, and the kohanim (priests) are given laws to keep from also suffering the same terrible fate. They are taught regarding mourning, being urged to avoid impurity from contact of the dead. And also given the laws prohibiting intoxication during temple service, so that one should not die for this reason. (suggesting this might have been a contributing factor, see Parshat Shemini 2012)

Almost naturally the story progresses about issues of purity, so as to avoid another one of these cases. This also can make us suspect something they did jeopardized their purity or the sanctify of the sacred space. Therefore now the Israelites needed to be taught in detail how to avoid impurity. These two kohanim did something that wasn’t exactly forbidden, but it wasn’t appropriate and therefore they actually perished on account of their error. For this reason within the text the topic of purity from here on is going to be quite specific, leaving almost nothing to the imagination.

I want us to remember as we read this that the details are so intense because these laws are being given to a newly liberated slave people. These are the people fresh over the border, new to freedom and not so civilized yet. They are dusty migrants, they are not some sort of polished and manicured people on the grand tour. They are not so clean, and quite prone to the uncouth. From here on we are going to be taught everything from eating, to dealing with a discharge. Why? Because we didn’t know!

It’s hard for us to understand this, because Jews are often maligned as eternally being a prissy sort of people, born with a hyper-vigilance to sanitation. But understand the world comes to this conclusion after seeing how of our religion has progressed us in this matter, both biblically and rabbinically. But before that we were much like our neighbors, and it wasn’t pretty.

We talk a lot about fire in this book, fire is essentially needed for this temple service to be performed. But it’s something that is not really spoken about until this the story of Nadav and Avihu. But if we think about it, if they brought fire with them in a pan, where do we think there got it from? Where was this extraneous and alien fire from?  I have an idea. If we consider the common cultures of the time, we can get a pretty good idea what was wrong with the fire they brought.

It might come as a terrible surprise to modern people, but it’s quite obvious to people who have done much classical reading, that in the old days bonfires were often fueled with dung. Most commonly animal dung, which herding societies produce in bulk. But in many cases, people even use human dung. Use of dung in this way is especially true in dry and non-wooded regions, like a desert. To this day animal dung is still commonly used as fuel, except in the modern age it is industrially dried and processed first before use for maximum fuel output. Odd but true.

If we take the story of Nadav and Avihu literally and simply as an issue of purity, it is a good assumption that maybe these two erred when they failed to create a new fire or take from another sacred source in order to light the altar with. Instead they could have just taken a flaming chip (קיסם) from a dung fueled fire. They might have cut corners, and in doing so took something alien and putrid into the sacred space. Thus showing a disrespect and irreverence for G-d, and their sacred service.

A hint of this possibility seems to peak out to us from the text of a dramatic act from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, who himself was a kohen – a priest, descended from the line of Itamar. He is once told to bake cakes over a fire of dung and eat it in the presence of all the people to see:

“And as barley cakes you shall eat it, and they shall bake it with human excrement before their eyes.

“And Hashem said, ‘So will the children of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations where I shall drive them.’

“And I said, ‘O L-RD G-d, behold my soul has not been defiled, neither have I eaten from an animal that died by itself and was torn [by beasts], from my youth until this day, and no loathsome meat has ever entered my mouth.’

“So He said to me, ‘See! I have given you cattle dung instead of human excrement, and you shall prepare your bread upon it.’”

וְעֻגַת שְׂעֹרִים, תֹּאכְלֶנָּה; וְהִיא, בְּגֶלְלֵי צֵאַת הָאָדָםתְּעֻגֶנָה, לְעֵינֵיהֶם.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ, כָּכָה יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתלַחְמָם טָמֵא, בַּגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַדִּיחֵם שָׁם.

וָאֹמַר, אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְיָ, הִנֵּה נַפְשִׁי, לֹא מְטֻמָּאָה; וּנְבֵלָה וּטְרֵפָה לֹאאָכַלְתִּי מִנְּעוּרַי וְעַדעַתָּה, וְלֹאבָא בְּפִי בְּשַׂר פִּגּוּל.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַירְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְךָ אֶתצפועי (צְפִיעֵי) הַבָּקָר, תַּחַת גֶּלְלֵי הָאָדָם; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶתלַחְמְךָ, עֲלֵיהֶם.

Ezekiel 12:4-15

Notice by the end of the First Temple Period, all these years later, Ezekiel is told to tell the people to get used to the ways of the nations, because this was what they were going to live like in exile. While Ezekiel is among the prophets who is most often willing to go along with G-d’s form of performance art, here he can’t get beyond his refined sensibilities in knowing this is vile. G-d still makes Ezekiel follow through. In the end with cow dung instead, but still it is something that is shockingly vile to the common people (not just to priests like himself) all these centuries later.

But notice when the prophet makes his objections he starts talking about the issues of purity that seem to very much march in step with the prohibitions of Leviticus. He starts with saying he has never defiled his soul in such ways. Not even with carcasses of animals which dropped dead on their own, nor animals which are torn apart by predators; nor has he ever consumed any other type of repulsive flesh (basar pigul).

Interestingly, starting in the sixth reading of Parshat Shemini we see these relating laws similarly laid out for us, right after all this drama with Nadav and Avihu is laid to rest. We begin with animals, and what is forbidden meat (basar) and what is proper. As the temple cult surrounded the offering of sacrifices, we start with the most obvious. We begin to define what animals are clean and which are not, to possibly ensure that they do not err in this matter as well. So that priests don’t bring treif into the sanctuary!

And next we follow-up with the details of purity regarding the human animal. Which is what we immediately begin to discuss as we open this week’s parsha. We get beyond purity which is merely based upon something extraneous, and begin to have to consider purity of our own person.

This weeks parsha makes us look at issues of purity within the realm of our own bodies, with impurity which at some times even bubbles and oozes from our own person. That is what this parsha discusses at length – the subject of tzara‘at, skin disorders. That is the one of the only thing which it discusses, really, except for in the first eight verses which discuss the birthing of humans. It touches on blood purity after birth, both of mother and child. And also details the sacrificial rituals that the mother is supposed to perform after the time of uncleanliness and rest has passed. (see Parshat Tazria-Metzorah 2013)

Certainly up until now we have been talking about an issue of laws and purity, and it is easy for us to assume that these laws are only in place for the Levites. But here we see laws which apply to everyone, all of us because we are all born. All of us, as we all have illness.

But these commandments, they are obvious that they apply to us. We would not dare say otherwise. As the first series of them is about a birth of a boy and lays down the law of the brit milah – circumcision. Our key verse for this week reads:

“And on the eighth day,

you shall circumcise

the flesh of his foreskin

| U’vayom hashemini

| yimul

| basar ar’elato

Leviticus 12:3

This is the highest mitzvah of all – the kick-off mitzvah of Jewish life. The mitzvah which literally embodies all the rest. A mitzvah, performed on the eighth day. Coincidence that this commandment comes down to us eight days into the story of this new temple worship in the Mishkan? Who can say, but it’s an interesting connection.

Indeed we know these commands are for all the people, because that is how our parsha opens. “Vayedaber Hashem el Mosheh laimor, daber el bnei Yisrael / And Hashem said to Moses saying, speak to the children of Israel…” And this isn’t the first place. The tone transitions from being mere commands to the priest back when we began to discuss the purity of animals in Parshat Shemini, there too G-d speaks to Moses, to tell Aharon and his sons, who is in turn to pass these instructions down to the Israelites. Just as we see here in this parsha as well.

After that eighth day G-d begins to give all the people instructions on how to safeguard this new form of worship. How to protect this new and sacred thing which returned the presence of G-d into their lives, so as not jeopardize it or themselves. Commands which needed to be observed by all the people, not just the priests in charge.

This Mishkan offered the people their connection to G-d, through the daily tamid offering. It provided a tangible way of knowing that G-d dwelt among them. It also additionally offered atonement for them through the additional offerings. But now that this new thing dwelt among them, they had to begin to act in a more appropriate way. They were now in the presence of Hashem, the King of all glory.

So staring from here on G-d begins to hand down laws which govern purity for the children of Israel, in both diet and in body.

When it discusses the issues of the body, as in our parsha this week, it starts out logically at the beginning with birth, then circumcision, etc. Almost chronologically touching on the ritual impurities associated with just living life itself, because life is messy.

Though this Mishkan was a way of connecting with G-d, it also came with a huge amount of responsibility. Though it offered them closeness to G-d, the people could not approach G-d when ever they wanted. Be they priests, or common Israelite. There needed to be a certain level of purity maintained. Not just in what they brought, but also in how they brought themselves.

With this holy service of the Mishkan in place, G-d commands the people going forward. We read this right at the end of chapter 11, in the summarization of when G-d tells them to keep away from the creeping things of the ground:

“You should not make your soul detestable with any creeping creatures which creeps. You shall not make yourselves unclean.

“For I am Hashem your G-d; you should sanctify yourselves, and be holy, because I am holy; so neither should you defile yourself with any type of swarming thing that moves on the ground.

“For I am Hashem that brought out of the land of Egypt, to be your G-d. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.”

אַלתְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶתנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָלהַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם.

כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶתנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָלהַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַלהָאָרֶץ.

כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי.

Leviticus 11:43-45

Here we get several warning about ritual purity. First, don’t make oneself tamei – ritually impure. Why? It’s obvious to us, because if they do they cannot enter into the Temple complex. If they make ourselves detestable, they cannot approach G-d. Second, they need to actively sanctify themselves. And third, the children of Israel are commanded to be holy because they are G-d’s possession, and therefore by extension it is their duty to be holy.

I know this is a long study. I apologize, I feel like I should have stopped a bit ago. But I do need us to understand this before we move on, and I also want to try to touch on something that is inspirational, which is hard to do sometimes when we go systematically through the Torah. Especially when it takes us through some pretty foul places. But we need to touch on one point, something that is lost to us because our experience of worship is much different today in a post-temple reality.

The fact is that temple worship was not at all like synagogue service we have today. People could not just go when ever they wanted. And the primary reason, was because of issues of purity. The Rambam notes this in one of his classics:

“I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence, in accordance with the command,” You shall reverence my sanctuary” (Lev. 19:30). But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words:” Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend” (Prov. 25:17). For this reason the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanliness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean…”

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed

In order for a person to go up to the Miskhan or Temple they needed to sanctify themselves. They had to wash themselves and keep themselves away from things which might make them unclean.

Washing before prayer at the Kotel

Washing before prayer at the Kotel

Rambam begins to note each one of these forms of impurity which are mentioned here in this part of Leviticus. And he notes that even if a person hasn’t made himself completely tumah (impure) by touching a dead body, there are many other ways we see here where a man can be defiled and therefore render himself disqualified to enter the sanctuary. By something we touch, or by something we eat. By sexual cohabitation, or by bodily affliction. The Rambam notes that even if one were to avoid all these things, a man can be made unclean by something as simple as being touched by creeping creatures (toads, lizards, rodents, etc; see Leviticus 11:29-31).

Fact is, the average citizen could not always be holy. The average Israelite wasn’t pure enough to come just any time. He had to make the effort, mindful of his ritual purity in order to enable him to approach the temple complex when he needed to.

The facts of real life are that people can’t always be completely ritually pure, because sometimes things cross our paths that jeopardize one’s cleanliness (like a creeping creature running over your foot), or having your food tainted. Or simple by something completely natural, like giving birth or if one is discharging. Nothing of no one’s fault at all. Nonetheless it restricted people from entrance.

This is noted by the Rambam as well, as he also gives us a reason why Israel should give heed and follow these laws of purity. He also spells out again what the intention is behind these laws:

“All this serves to keep people away from the Sanctuary, and to prevent them from entering it whenever they liked. Our Sages, as is well-known, said, ‘Even a clean person may not enter the Sanctuary for the purpose of performing divine service, unless he takes previously a bath.’ By such acts the reverence [for the Sanctuary] will continue, the right impression will be produced which leads man, as is intended, to humility.”

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III

If people expect to give an offering or even himself serve before G-d, he needs to wash himself up. Even if he thinks he is clean. He further needs to examine his habits and his person. One needs to examine themselves and ask if they are really in such a state of purity of being and intention. One is forced to continuously ask themselves if they are really coming to G-d out of reverence. The Rambam is of the opinion this is the intended purpose of the laws of purity to produce a conscious level of humility inside people.

Today for religious Jews do not live in the shadow of the Mishkan or the Temple. We do not have that embody our connection to G-d. In this new reality we perform a different avodah – a different type of service than that of the Temple cult. We don’t sacrifice. We don’t have that constantly burning tamid offering in the midst of our camp to stoke, to remind us that we are holy.

We have a different type of relationship before G-d, we offer up prayer and the words of our lips as our sacrifices. (Isaiah chapter 1) We offer our prayers in synagogues, and not in a sacrosanct Temple. We get to come daily if we want to, not just when ever we are found to be pure and therefore permitted. We have a tamid too – an eternal offering which we get to offer; an offering which we offer in prayer daily.

Though tamid has a different application today than it did during the Temple period, our duty to strive for purity along with our Holy G-d remains. And when we remember and keep the commandments of purity, instead of them focusing around an altar they most often focus around the dinner table. This is how this doctrine of purity has reached to us from then until now.

We don’t need to complicate the topic of offerings. We understand what the symbolism of tamid offerings (Heb. perpetual, continuous) is for, if we think about it. As our sages teach us this, that it is because our duty before G-d is a daily thing which takes constant work. Our spirituality is something we work at daily.

And like those who worshiped in the Temple, we need to be mindful to daily approach our service before G-d with humility and self-inspection. We can’t ever assume that we are just worthy. We also need to maintain the understanding that precisely because we have a duty before G-d, that is the reason we must constantly inspect the purity of ourselves and our ways. We can’t ever lose respect and humility in our daily service before G-d, or else our sense of sanctity is lost.

Our Point to Consider This Week: Part of showing respect for G-d is displayed through exemplifying humility. On one hand it might be logical that being humble as servants of such an amazing G-d as ours would be near impossible. After all, we are called to serve as laborers of Hashem in this world, with so many holy mitzvot to perform. However it is precisely because of this that we should show even more humility yet. We should ask ourselves this week: Do I perform my service before G-d with intentionality and with self-reflection, along with the awe and humility that should come with such an honor?

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Parshat Shemini (5774)


Leviticus 9 – 11

Because Creation is a Process

Life most definitely has its ups and downs. Even more frustrating to many of us is when we feel that we aren’t making progress, or even like we are going backwards from the goals that we most aspire to. This is common to most people, and that is what we are going to talk about. You aren’t alone in this, my friends.

The children are waiting for seven day's for the presence of G-d to appear. And so far nothing happened. How would you feel?As we get into this weeks lesson I want to start by reminding us that even though we are still early on into a new book of the Torah, Vayikra – the book of Leviticus – this is really a continuation of the story we were following in Shemot – in Exodus. Later books are often regarded as repetitions by scholars, but these are the original instructions. So in this book we will find many signs and hints to the basic groundwork of the ritual worship, and the philosophy driving them. I want us to keep this in mind as we read this book. There is so much we can learn if we slow down and just consider it.

Let us begin with the key verse we will focus on from this week’s parsha:

“Moses and Aaron went into

the Tent of Meeting,

and when he came out

they blessed the people.

And the glory of Hashem appeared

to all the people.”

| Vayavo Moshe ve’Aharon

| el-Ohel Mo’ed

| vayetse’u

| vayevarechu et-ha’am

| vayera chevod-Hashem

| el-kol-ha’am

Leviticus 9:23

In the previous verse we learned that Aharon lifts up his hands to extend the priestly blessing, he gives the birkat kohanim. “May Hashem bless you and keep you – May Hashem make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you – May Hashem lift His face unto you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26; see Rashi to Lev. 9:22; see Parshat Nasso 2012)

And then there is a second blessing that is also given, we aren’t exactly sure what that is. (see Parshat Shemini 2011) However, according to midrash we are given a suggestion of what the second set of blessings are. We discussed this a few weeks ago. (see Parshat Pekudei 5774)

Rashi repeats these blessings again in his commentary upon this verse as well:

Then they came out and blessed the people: They said: “May the pleasantness Hashem, our G-d, be upon us (Ps. 90:17); May it be Gd’s will that the Shechinah rest in the work of your hands.” [And why did they choose this particular blessing?] Because throughout all seven days of the investitures, when Moses erected the Mishkan, performed the service in it, and then dismantled it daily, the Shechinah did not rest in it. The Israelites were humiliated, and they said to Moses, “Moses, our teacher, all the efforts we have taken were only so that the Shechinah should dwell among us, so that we would know that we have been forgiven for the sin of the [golden] calf!” Therefore, Moses answered them (verse 6), “This is the thing Hashem has commanded; do [it], and the glory of Hashem will appear to you. My brother Aaron is more worthy and important than I, insofar as through his offerings and his service the Shechinah will dwell among you, and you will know that the Omnipresent has chosen him.”

ויצאו ויברכו את העם: אמרו ויהי נועם האלהינו עלינו (תהלים צ יז), יהי רצון שתשרה שכינה במעשה ידיכם. לפי שכל שבעת ימי המלואים, שהעמידו משה למשכן ושמש בו ופרקו בכל יום, לא שרתה בו שכינה, והיו ישראל נכלמים ואומרים למשה משה רבינו, כל הטורח שטרחנו, שתשרה שכינה בינינו ונדע שנתכפר לנו עון העגל. לכך אמר להם זה הדבר אשר צוה התעשו וירא אליכם כבוד ה‘ (פסוק ו), אהרן אחי כדאי וחשוב ממני שעי קרבנותיו ועבודתו תשרה שכינה בכם ותדעו שהמקום בחר בו:

Rashi to Leviticus 9:23

We see these two blessings repeated again for us, as they were in the commentary for Exodus as well. However, if you notice the order is actually reversed to what it was before. In the commentary for Parshat Pekudei we saw the lines of “Yehi ratzon / May it be Your will…” first, and then followed by a verse of Psalm. Here they are reversed. In fact the section of “yehi ratzon” is also truncated here, so I believe this text is just mentioning all this in passing. And therefore does not give much consideration for the actual decorum of the process. That or it is not defined firmly one way or the other because of speculation. One can’t exactly be sure.

As when previously discussed both then and also last week, when we have been talking about the Mishkan (tabernacle) we have most often been talking about the people having an outlet for their spiritual and creative expression. That they people felt the need to create this sanctuary in order to pro-actively do something about their need to feel close to G-d. We have talked about how we should thus encourage people to be active, and how to respond to people’s creativity. But we have really sidestepped around the issues of why they are doing all of this, only mentioning it in passing.

I want us to step back and remind ourselves once again. It is because there was a rift made between the children and Israel and G-d on the day that they made, and worshiped, the Golden Calf. The presence of Hashem which hung around and guarded them, it was no longer with them in that manner. They felt alone and exposed. They felt the shame and consequences of their error. Now they desperately wanted to feel that closeness to G-d once again.

There are some ironies of both to stories of the egel (the calf) and the making of the Mishkan. You don’t have to think too hard to come up with a few. Like how is it that the people are this captivated with their construction of all of this, when they had previously been punished for also constructing items of worship? Then they made an egel of gold, and now they are making angelic figures and the like as well. Didn’t this get them in trouble before? So what’s the difference?

The difference was that they intended to make items to help them worship, but instead they made items which became idol focuses of their worship. Our rabbis tell us, as it is also pointed out in philosophical works such as the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and the Kuzari of Yehuda haLevi, that the people were not really constructing items to necessarily worship, but to help them focus their worship toward G-d. The eygel being a way to meditate upon G-d, not to worship as a god. But it got twisted around, in a most horrible way.

What the scriptures and our sages reveal is that the people fell into error when they could no longer be patient and wait for Moses to return with the instructions of Torah. Instead they constructed something of their own, according to a design they were already familiar with from past idolatry. They couldn’t wait for G-d or Moses, so they went at it themselves in a disastrous spectacle.

A spectacle which harmed this people and left them alienated from the presence of G-d. This guiding presence departs during the entire incident of the eygel.

Because the children of Israel couldn’t wait and be patient, they literally took matters into their own hands. And in doing so, they didn’t progress. They instead lost the presence of G-d which had guided them and comforted them.

Now that the Israelites had the instructions from Moses on how to do this worship right, this was what consumed them. And now in line with these commandments the Israelites are also desperately trying to atone for themselves as well. Something which can only be accomplished through a true act of worship, as described by Moses in the revelation of Torah. They need the temple worship, in order to atone for their sins.

This was the cause of anxiety. Not only were they waiting for the presence of G-d to return to them. Not only were they ready to show real acts of worship done right. But they were also desperately waiting for G-d to accept their gifts with a sign of His presence, so that they will know that their sins have been forgiven. This is what they are anxiously awaiting, for validation of their atonement and redemption.

What our midrash further tells us here is just amazing. We are told that the Israelite’s anxiousness and sense of disappointment became overwhelming over the week of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Not only did the presence of G-d not appear to them until the end of the seven days, we are told that on each of the seven inauguration days the Mishkan was reconstructed – as it was dismantled each day of this week of dedication.

How can this be, how is it that our sages suggest such a thing? Why would it be taken apart and set-up up again each of these days?

Remember how earlier I was saying how this book of Leviticus is a continuation of the story started in Exodus? In Exodus chapter 29 we learn that the inauguration is supposed to take seven days, that’s what the whole chapter is about.

But from where do we get the idea it was reconstructed and erected seven times? Keeping in mind this story as all one, the rabbis took notice that there are two times we see a plan given of the Mishkan  in Exodus (Parshat Tetzaveh; 25:10-30:38, 31:7-11) and five times in Leviticus (Parshat Pekudei; 35:11-19. 6:8-39:32, 39:33-42, 40:1-16, 40:17-33). Seven times in this long narrative over two books.

Our rabbis would suggest we have it repeated seven times because it was reconstructed each day, for seven days. And as we often mention, our sages are of the opinion that nothing is redundant and superfluous in the Torah, so each of these descriptions must have been useful for something. Thus there are seven descriptions, for the seven times it was reconstructed.

The number seven is mystically significant in our tradition. It has great symbolism for us. There are seven days in the creation story. And therefore there are seven days of the week. There are seven years in the shmitah cycle – which again completes its cycle with a fallow year for agriculture in Israel next year in 5775. And of course there are seven branches on the Menorah. There are many connections to the number seven found in the scriptures.

We can clearly see that two themes seem to run through them all. Creation, and the completion of a cycle.

When it comes to creation we understand what these people were doing now, they were trying to redeem themselves. They were trying to get close to G-d. Now they were trying to get their sins forgiven, and also beginning to worship the correct way. But nothing happened. G-d did not show up and accept their gifts those first few days, so we are told they felt nichlamim – they were humiliated.

Unlike the eygel (calf) which somehow got them immediate gratification, the creation of this tent of worship and all its service was taking time. But if we think about it, creation took time even for G-d – seven days to create the world. Should they not have expect that their own creative endeavors would take time to be full achieved as well? Is that not a lesson which we can take away from this?

And the constant construction and deconstruction of the Mishkan all these days, is this not something that is mirrored in our own daily lives? Do we not often put hard work into our endeavors, making so much progress, only to see setbacks? When we think we’ve gotten somewhere, we see our work and plans deconstructed right before our eyes.

What we learn is that the first six days were just dress rehearsals. In the end we are told on the seventh day fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings. And thus the presence of G-d returned, the people were forgiven and the service began. (see Parshat Shemini 2011)

But why is it so important that we make mention of this?

The reason is because it serves as a lesson for us like it did for the children of Israel in the wilderness, that we need to keep at it until our mission is accomplished. And that we need to stick with the full cycle, because creation is a process. Often times we don’t get it all right the first few times, but eventually we will and it will be glorious. We just need to stick with it, and be patient as we see it through.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Parshat Tzav (5774)


Leviticus 6 – 8

Priests or Royalty, Everyone Needs To Be of Service

Today we are going to take a look at this parsha, and also touch a bit on the holiday of Purim since this season is once again upon us. I hope everyone is enjoying this time of celebration.

Another active Queen Esther would have probably been fond of. "After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II."

Another active queen, one Esther would have probably been fond of. Queen Elizabeth II: “After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II.”

The reason we need to enjoy these celebrations so much is because we don’t always have time of rest to enjoy. Most of us keep quite busy schedules, myself included. Despite illness and limitations, I find myself quite active. People often ask why I feel the need to keep industrious, even when I feel so low. The reason is simply because it’s a Jewish value to be active.

This is a thought I cant help but keep in mind in light of the Purim holiday. This holiday is very significant to me, because of the true heroine of the story; the beloved Queen Esther. The brave queen who can be thought of as the patron saint of crypto-Jews – the secret Jews of Spanish-Portuguese extraction, the hidden Jews who survived the Inquisition which raged across several continents. (see “Queen Esther: Patron saint of crypto-Jews”) As a hidden Jew herself, Esther’s story brings comfort to many of us. To all of us minorities who once hid it, but who are now braving to embrace our Judaism outwardly. As it turns out, on both sides of my family I know I’m the first to be privileged to join in mainstream Judaism, since who knows how long.

One of the things that people often ask me is how it was possible for all those families to keep their sense of who they were throughout rough years, including the age of the Inquisition. We don’t often consider it, but Jews were even burned here in the Americas for practicing secretly as well. (see “Crypto Jews in Mexico during Spanish Colonial Era”) So keeping secret was essential, but so was passing on one’s sense of identity. As always Shabbat observance was the sign which both guarded identity and threatened to give people away upon inspection. Either keeping the sabbath, or doing things just slightly differently on that day to acknowledge the sabbath.

So too it was the case with Queen Esther, as we are told according to tradition. The scriptures teach us that when she was taken into the royal harem she was given seven servants from the house of King Achashverosh. (Esther 2:9) We don’t know if this was among the things she asked for, or if was just purely because the royal servant gave her this out of his kindness towards her as suggested. What ever the case, the next verse tells us she didn’t tell anyone about her family or her people because Mordechai told her not to. She kept her Jewishness a secret.

However, we are told that each of these servants she had assigned to a different day of the week. Though it might not seem apparent to non-Jewish people, the days of the week in Hebrew are named Yom Rishon (the First Day), Yom Sheini (the Second Day), Yom Shlishi (the Third Day), etc. – corresponding to the day of the week, starting over with Shabbat. She might not have been able to have kept noticeable count in the palace, our tradition says, but she was able to know it was Shabbat and act appropriately based on the servant who served on that day.

I am also of the understanding that our tradition gives the names of these seven servants assigned to Queen Esther. We don’t often give enough consideration to the ladies in our tradition, so I want to take a moment now. We should also pause to take notice, as I am told each of these names has a specific meaning. These women servants are named:

Cholta

Meaning creation, corresponding to the first day of creation

Rokaita

Meaning firmament, the days of the creation of the heavens

Ginonita

Meaning vegetation, as the plants appear on the third day

N’horita

Meaning illumination, corresponding to the sun, moon and stars of the heavens

Rochshita

Meaning crawling creatures, corresponding to the creation of animal life

Chorfita

Meaning, “the eve of” – meaning the the eve of Shabbat

Rogaita

Meaning calmness, which reminds one of the day of rest which is Shabbat

The names correspond to the seven day creation story. A name was assigned to each of the servants, so that she would remember each day of the week based upon the servant which attended her. (Targum Rishon) We are told that they not only helped her keep the days, but also helped her keep a kosher diet of vegetables like the prophet Daniel (Talmud Megillah 13a). In this midrash our rabbis reveal how understated practices, names, language, and diet have often been signs of one’s not so obvious uniqueness.

Now before we move on from this story, I want us to notice that even those who accept this midrash are a bit critical of this legend. Some asking questions, like what type of example is Esther to us working-class men? And if we think about it, what does a queen in a palace need seven servants for anyhow? With seven servants how does she even know that it is Shabbat at all, would not each day be a rest for her?

Some are of the opinion that this is really what showed Esther’s exceptionalness. If she was to keep a day or rest, she would have had to have taken preparations. And even more impressive, some of our rabbis suggest that she was more of an activist queen. She went about actively involving herself in welfare and aid for the six days, and then one day she rested. She staggered her servants out so that to six servants she looks industrious in public service, but only the seventh servant would think her merely a typically lazy queen who was waited on hand and foot.

The logic goes, keeping here secret wouldn’t be possible working them all each and everyday.

But in this lesson we also get an interesting picture of what an exceptional woman – dare we say an eishet chayil, a woman of valor – in the person of Queen Esther. (see Parshat Yitro 2013) In this midrash she exemplifies a person who shows that we need to work the other days of the week in order for the sabbath to have any real significance at all. It would be nothing worth acknowledging if we merely rested all the time. Shabbat is the reward for those who labor.

Just as much as we are demanded to rest on Shabbat, we are commanded to work when it’s not the sabbath. (see “Call of Torah” by Rabbi Elie Munk, Shemot 20:9)

Our tradition doesn’t state where she got her scheduling advice from. But I think I have a clue for us found in this week’s Torah portion. After that long sidetrack, let’s jump right into our verse now:

“And any meal offering

baked in an oven,

and any one made in a deep pan

or in a shallow pan,

belongs to the kohen who offers it up;

it shall be his”’

| Vechol-minchah

| asher te’afeh batanur

| vechol-na’asah vamarcheshet

| ve’al-machavat

| lakohen hamakriv

| otah lo tiheyeh

Leviticus 7:9

In this verse we learn that from these mincha offerings portions were taken by the kohen (priests), and we are commanded that it is to be consumed by the priests who offered it up and who are ritually pure. But regarding who could divide these portions, we learn of that here. The item which was offered up by that priest who did offering, it’s portions belong to him.

We have to remember that the people were giving grains, oils, meat, etc. which the Levitic priests depended on for their sustenance. In an agrarian society they had no land holdings, being dependent on their portion of the offerings and tithes. Even from certain sacrifices a portion was taken for them, a portion for themselves and the other priestly brothers to eat from.

Now how does this work? Where there competing priests at the entrance of the Temple waiting for you like car salesmen? Circling like sharks? Was their competition and turf wars? Were some families more well-recognized and favored in the Temple, so that some families did better off than others?

This is answered for us in the commentary by Rashi for this verse:

Belongs to the kohen who offers it up: One might think that it belongs to him alone. Scripture, therefore, states (in the next verse), “[And any meal-offering…] shall belong to all the sons of Aaron.” One might think, then, that it [indeed] belongs to all of them. Scripture, therefore, states (in the preceding verse), “belongs to the kohen who offers it up.” So how [can this be reconciled]? [It belongs] to the family of the day when they offer it up.

לכהן המקריב אתה וגו‘: יכול לו לבדו, תלמוד לומר לכל בני אהרן תהיה. יכול לכולן, תלמוד לומר לכהן המקריב, הא כיצד לבית אב של אותו יום שמקריבין אותה:

Rashi to Leviticus 7:9

In the Torah we see that there are two branches of families among the sons of Aharon, the house of Elezar and the house of Itamar. From each of these clans the original service order for temple service was assigned, shared between them. There being four service groups from Elezar, and four service groups from Itamar. They would be rotated each day of the week, and then all come together on the sabbath. Make perfect sense on how to organize a 28 day month, assigned them all over 24 days and once a week they all come together and work – this day being the sabbath. There coming together to work corporately also in effect on the other festival days, when the assistance of the entire priesthood was essential.

Eventually as the Israelite population grew and the kohanim grew commensurately, there became 24 of these family work groups (mishmerot). Their service then was shifted to week-long assignments. (Torat haKohanim) And this was the method that went into effect in the days of the prophets and the early Temple periods. Of all the service groups our tradition only knows of four that remained through the ages. These four were returned back to Eretz Yisrael from the Babylonian exile, where they were organized by Ezra haSofer (Ezra, the scribe for whom the book of the bible is named) to help establish another 24 mishmerot in the second Temple period.

Now many people don’t like the way that this system of priesthood, nor the ability of these priest to take from offerings. A cynic would say, why do these guys get to take from some of the best of our produce and meats? They barely work at all, some can say.

If we were to assign mishmerot, a family would be assigned to about one workday a week, with one sabbath day of service. Which translates to at most two days on duty per week, whereas us working-class people work 6 days a week. That’s not a lot of work, surely not enough to sustain oneself alone off this enterprise. For this reason we learn here through Rashi that they shared with their entire families so that no one was without.

So simply put, before the priestly system got corrupted in the Hasmonean days the priestly system wasn’t really thought of as a money-making system. People were still supported off of contributions of Israel, and the sharing among themselves. It wasn’t an occupation which people got rich off of.

So why would they be motived to engage in this service at all? If we even think about it long we enough, most of us can quickly think of more efficient methods of organizing labor as well. Why not just assign the best suited and most fit for service, and just get the job done and done right? Why go through all these complexities?

In the same manner that we can be critical of the midrash regarding Esther and her seven servants, we seem to follow the same critiques. Like we ask of Esther, how can we credit these priests with “avodah” (work) when these people seem to barely work at all?

Rarely do people consider all the things the kohanim do aside from just sacrifices, like also filling very social service roles such as inspecting the illness of the sick. The kohanim weren’t a sort of caste just stilling idly in their ivory towers. They contributed heavily, but in a different way than the average laborer.

But even in this assignment there is a lesson, I believe. I believe the reason for assigning these mishmerot in this fashion was not because it was economical or efficient, but because it simply gave each family of kohanim a chance to participate in priestly service – their avodah. It is that important that everyone be active participants in this culture of Torah living.

We also need to understand that it was the priests who needed this service, probably even more than the priesthood needed them. There were enough able-bodied kohanim to go around most of the time. But that is what community is about, us each doing our part. We don’t need to do the job the best, and we don’t need to do it all ourselves. In fact our contributions might be merely symbolic. But nonetheless it is a Jewish value that we all shoulder the burned of communal responsibility with one another. And that we all have the honor and pride of service.

As we continue to read through Vayikra – the book of Leviticus, I want us to remember the theme that has been carried over from Shemot – from Exodus. We are at a stage in the journey were everything becomes a discussion about the Mishkan – the so-called tabernacle. This was a powerful symbol, because it was the Israelite’s way of remedying a rift in the relationship with G-d the people felt since the Gold Calf – when they got impatient and refused to wait for instructions on what to do next and took matters into their own hands. The truth is Jews always feel they need to be industrious, and we can either use that for good or bad. Sometimes this can get us into trouble if not channeled correctly.

And that is what I am stuck by as I read the commentaries of our rabbis, including Rashi who is ever-present in our chumashim. One of the things that they keep pointing out is the people’s focus on their work being accepted so that it could provide an active ritual service which enabled them to feel close to G-d. This work wasn’t so much for G-d’s acceptance, as it was for their own. Indeed this was their way of also redeeming themselves as well.

All the people of Israel contributed for the construction and the ongoing offerings, and all the priests were included in the service to make it functional. Because we all need to feel like we have a place, and we all should feel like we have something to contribute to society.

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Parshat Vayikra (5774)


Leviticus 1 – 5

Purim In Light of Vayikra: A Message of Acceptance and Peace

As we come in to the Book of Viykra, as this word suggests, we begin with the book of Leviticus with G-d calling out. “Vayikra el-Moshe / And He called out to Moses.” (v.1) Now the English name of this new book of the Torah – Leviticus – it would suggest that we are going to hear of Moses receiving yet another revelation of laws, this time for the Levities.

Mishloach Manot (from Wikipedia): "The mitzvah of giving mishloach manot derives from the Book of Esther. It is meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast held later in the day, and to increase love and friendship among Jews as a counter to Haman's assertion that the Jewish people are characterised by strife and disunity."

Mishloach Manot (from Wikipedia): “The mitzvah of giving mishloach manot derives from the Book of Esther. It is meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast held later in the day, and to increase love and friendship among Jews as a counter to Haman’s assertion that the Jewish people are characterised by strife and disunity.”

This simplistic understanding might seem appropriate, given how many of the laws herein are about sacrifice and ritual law; matters under the jurisdiction of the Levitic priests. However, this is not the essence of this book for Jews of the rabbinic tradition. It’s time we get beyond this childish oversimplification and look for the living Torah in this, not just whine that we can’t comprehend the sacrificial cult.

Besides, the Torah itself, at the head of this book demands that we look at it as more than just a book of priestly rituals and dead animals. Indeed the book of Vayikra has Hashem directing the voice of Moses to relate something to all the common people, how they could also call upon G-d. How they could draw close to him.

This is why from the start our text we read, “Daber el-bnei Yisrael, ve’amrata aleihem, adam ki-yakariv michem karban l’Hashem… / Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When any man among you brings an offering for Hashem…” (v.2) These are instructions for all the everyday people of Israel, for all who want to karav – to draw close to Hashem.

This is why primitive people would offer sacrifices, in order to make a connection with G-d. To draw close to the Divine. Naturally, as animal sacrifice is the most dramatic form of offering, this must be addressed first. The severity of it demands that we touch on this point first, as we are looking into an age where sacrifice is the most common form of worship. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.

But along with this point there is also reveals another truth, one which we need to grasp in order to understand what the people are trying to accomplish here. This is our key verse for this week:

“If his offering is a burn-sacrifice

from his flock,

a male without blemish

you shall bring to the entrance

of the Tent of Meeting,

bring it near

that he may be accepted before Hashem.”

| Im-olah korbano

| min-habakar

| zachar tamim

| yakrivenu el-petach

| Ohel Mo’ed

| yakriv oto

| lirtzono lifnei Hashem

Leviticus 1:3

Today we aren’t going to talk about sacrifices. We could talk at length about the word “im / if.” The factor of “if” that comes into play for bringing an offering. We could also take a look at the different type of sacrifices, and what the significance of each is. But I’ve actually done a lot of talk on that over the past couple years. I want us to focus on some other points, so I encourage you to look into the meaning of that for yourselves. There are some deep truths which are easily revealed if we just look with intent.

However, there is something that does need to be addressed before we move on. Even though we have also touched on this topic elsewhere as well. It is most important we address it again now, because we encounter it here at the start of Leviticus and will see it continuously repeated from here on.

Here in verse three we begin to see the use of the phrase, “lirotzono.” We need to understand that the people were sacrificing as part of their ritual to gain the acceptance of Hashem, and to signify finding favor in G-d’s eyes. Furthermore this act of public sacrifice also would reinforce for the community of Israelites that a person was now blameless and acceptable to stand in the congregation of Israel; a soul and citizen in good standing.

We also noted at that time that this verse also suggests to us that an offering must be given of free will. That is the other common way that we can understand the phrase, “lirotzono” to mean. That we offer something in keeping with ones own ratzon – ones own free will and desire. That one gives what they wish, as they see fit. That we should all freely give as we so desire. (see Parshat Kedoshim 2011)

So here we can likewise understand this verse to mean, “He shall bring it willingly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before Hashem.”

This use of the word ratzon (from which lirozono is conjugated) here is interesting for the Hebrew speaker. So I want us to take another look. Because most often when we hear words such as these used it is in reference to what people desire. If we consider the way people today use the related word rotzeh (or rotzah), more often than not people are talking about what they want as well. More often than not they are describing or ordering what they want. Asking for something they desire. Right?

Instead here in our parsha we have this come up in a discussion about giving, not about receiving something. That is a topic in and of itself, how our will should be for giving and not just focused on what we receive.

It is especially important for us to focus on our desire to give, and not just our will to receive during this Purim season. To think in terms of charity and communal giving, as many of us go out of way to give money to the poor and shalach manot baskets to one another.

Now to bring it back to the actual phrase itself, “lizrtzono.” We are talking about one’s ratzon, one’s own will and desire. But more broadly, to do something according to one’s ratzon means for a person to merely do what pleases them. Or more formally, to do what is appropriate in one’s own eyes.

The latter of these descriptions we understand well. As in our prayers, we recite the words, “Yehi ratzon milfanech Hashem Eloheinu / May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d…” Or we can even stylistically translate this as, “May it be acceptable before you, Hashem our G-d.” We recite this near the end of the Amidah prayers, asking that our prayers be found to be appropriate and pleasing before the eyes of our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers. That what we asking for and desire also be in line with His ratzon.

And this is the most common use of this phrase, one that most religious people understand. And this is even more true in light of the Torah. Most often the word ratzon is attached to the will of G-d, and less often used when speaking of the will of men. We see it used several times when talking about the early rulers of Israel. But aside from that its is rarely used for men

Interestingly, two of these rare occurrences appear in Megillat Esther. We also have one similar reference in the story of Esther as well. So we are going to take a look at those instances in order to see what we can learn from them.

There are certain things we need to keep in mind when considering the ratzon of men. Whereas most people can accept the will of G-d being good and pleasing, we can’t just assume such a claim when it comes to will of humans. We are not always so honorable and lofty. Us mortals have a ratzon which can be directed for good or ill, and quite often if encouraged it will migrate towards the ill.

We see this presented in the first of the examples at the start of Megillat Esther. We read:

“And they gave them drink in vessels of gold – the vessels being diverse one from another – and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king.

“And the drinking was according to the law, and yet there was no duress; for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure.”

וְהַשְׁקוֹת בִּכְלֵי זָהָב, וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים; וְיֵין מַלְכוּת רָב, כְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ:

וְהַשְּׁתִיָּה כַדָּת, אֵין אֹנֵס: כִּיכֵן יִסַּד הַמֶּלֶךְ, עַל כָּלרַב בֵּיתוֹלַעֲשׂוֹת, כִּרְצוֹן אִישׁוָאִישׁ:

Esther 1:7-8

The first of our examples is in the middle of the initial description of the feast ordered by King Achashverosh. We are not yet talking about the actual feast of Purim yet, we are talking about the initial feast which the King of Persia orders, (v.3) and of the matching feast arranged by Queen Vashti for the women (v.9). This is the feast of debauchery which starts off this whole story of Megillat Esther, it is not the nonintoxicating celebration of salvation yet. No, here this is the initial binge and orgy. The party which ended with a belligerent, and then headless Vashti. Thus staring the narrative of Purim, and the rise of Queen Esther and Mordechai.

In this first example we are presented with how King Achashverosh orders a feast and commands the people to celebrate. Now aside from ordering the celebration, the King made sure that every person was able to celebrate. He provided the party and the wine, and ordered his servants that they should do according to the will of each person (kiratzon ish-v’ish). That everyone’s personal pleasures were met. Thus no one was celebrating by force, each person freely reveled in their ratzon – in their own desires and pleasures.

This is a negative display of ratzon. (Intersting isn’t it, giving in light of how many of us today treat Purim, right? But I digress.)

And then later on in Megillat Esther we have another, display of ratzon. One that is also troubling, especially if we don’t put it into context. Our second reference is found in this verse near the end of the story:

“And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword and with slaying and destruction, and they did to their enemies as they wished.”

וַיַּכּוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּכָלאֹיְבֵיהֶם, מַכַּתחֶרֶב וְהֶרֶג וְאַבְדָן; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם, כִּרְצוֹנָם:

Esther 9:5

This is supposed to be the good example. The example of righteous indignation, the fury of self-defense. The king and his princes cannot stop the orders of slaughter already issues against the Jews, so they aid the Jews to defend themselves. And in the clashes to come they destroy and slay their enemies. They are empowered with arms and allowed to fight back. Doing unto their enemies “ki-ratzon,” affording to their own desires. Carrying out what ever retribution they saw fit, they were allowed to do as they willed. As we see, these enemies armed by the evil decree Haman lobbied for were themselves destroyed. We are told the Jews slaughtered 500 men in Shushan, as well as the remaining 10 sons of evil Haman. This victory was repeated over and over in the other provinces as well.

Like I said, this latter example is supposed to be the better of the two. At least one of these displays of will is morally correct, that of the Jews to defend themselves in face of a decree calling for their inhalation. However, righteous or justified it might be, it is not necessarily the ideal. Not to most of us modern readers, we would first hope for a more peaceful resolution.

We would hope that their ratzon – that the will of the people would be more prone to show mercy, unlike Haman and the enemies of the Jews. Certainly in self-defense there is a time for fighting, a place for taking a life, and a need to do damage to the enemies who threaten the welfare our people.

Still we would hope that “ki-ratzonam / as they saw fit,” would have been something more merciful than a response of total annihilation in return. And I believe we do in-fact see an undeniable display of that here, which itself is clearly evident. Evident by how relatively low the number of casualties are for some supposedly huge battles and clashes of a grand scale.

I’m not at all just being overly progressive, and acting like a hippie by asserting this, I assure you. For those of you that also feel this way, your justification comes in looking at the moral example of the hero of this story. The example of Mordechi the Jew.

Yes it is true that in Esther chapter 9 we see that the princes of the land helped aid the Jews out of their fear for Mordechai, who was now well esteemed in the eyes of King Achashverosh. The sheer influence of Mordechai made the princes, governors and officials help the Jews. They aided the Jews in their armed response out of sheer respect (and fear) of Mordechai. And in the days to come Mordechai increased in greatness as his fame for the salvation of the Jews increased throughout the land.

In the final lines of Megillat Esther we will learn something about Mordechi and his awesome legacy. We are going to see what became of this Mordechi and what he choose to do with the greatness he acquired. And about what values he thought were important to hand down to his descendants.

Remember how we talked at the beginning that ratzon can also be understood as acceptance? We see a  form of this word appear similarly so in this final verse of Esther:

“For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Achashverosh, and great among the Jews, and accepted (Heb. ratzuy) by the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.”

כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיודֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ, וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָלזַרְעוֹ:

Esther 10:3

As Mordechai’s popularity increased, not just with the Persians but also with his own Jewish brothers, he used his influence for something other than might. At the end of the story we do not have a depiction of a man of influence with an iron first. He is respected as such. But his legacy, in what he chose to focus his life’s work and message upon, was summed up in these last words. Mordechai didn’t seek recognition or power. What he sought was, “tov l’amo / good for his people.” When he selected his words of wisdom to follow he choose to, “daber shalom l’chol zaro / speak peace to all his seed.”

As we go on to celebrate our Purim celebrations of the miracle and salvations done for us at this time, and at this season, I want us to remember to focus on something other than just victory and might. I want us to remember the real message of this story is that we should do everything we can to use our influence to seek the good of the Jewish people. And instead of merely revelling in our victory, we need to continue to use our influence to instill the peace seeking mentality.

This Purim I want us to get beyond using this holidays as our annual chance to act out our ratzon – our pleasures and desires. Purim is much more than a time to just let it all hang out. We should intend that our ratzon be more in line with what is described here in this week’s Torah portion, that our ratzon – our will, our desire – should be to give. We should strive to be people who struggle with all our will to advance the good of the Jewish people. People who use their influence for the welfare of others. People who use their influence for the acceptance of others, unlike Haman. People who are like blessed Moredechia, with the will and desire to advance peace throughout the generations.

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Parshat Tazria-Metzorah (2013)


Leviticus 12 – 15

Childbirth and the Implications of Purity: Is the Torah Being Sexist?

Mother and InfantThis week we are going to deal with ritual purification of people. This topic spans several seemingly distinct and diverse topics. This section deals with both ritual purity related to childbirth, and ritual purity related to tzaraat – a skin infliction commonly known simply as leprosy in English. It deals with issues of purity (teharah) and impurity impurity (tumah). As you see we deal with the incidental forms of impurity such as childbirth, and the consequential like tzaraat that is a divine punishment for lashon hara (slander). We deal with male childbirth, and female childbirth; and the sacrificial system that was set up for returning one to world of communal ritual after a initial birthing period has passed. It also explains how this happens for the person with tzaraat as well. This week we will mostly deal with the women’s issues.

Now I understand why many people are not so familiar with this section of Torah, except for the references related to gossip and slander. Often times people just skim over the rest in discomfort, over the seeming grossness of it all. I have even noticed in a lot of the commentaries, especially those for the youth, we just pass over this section related to the purity of women all together. Of all the verses that most of the commentaries choose to point out, it is the seemingly oddly placed third verse (see Leviticus 12:3) related to brit mila (circumcision) that we point out. I find this odd considering this is the one verse that our masters like Rashi ignored.

First before I seemingly get too critical, I must remind us that there is almost a logic to why we have done this. Circumcision is the paramount mitzvah, it’s the officiating sign of Abraham’s conversion, and for this reason is called brit milah because it is “the word of the covenant” or the “covenant promise;” milim means words or promises; interestingly it also means chatter or rhetoric. Maybe the topics of slander and purity are not so far off as we make them in our imaginations, but I digress.

As we learn from this section of Torah it is a serious thing that we stop all activities to perform. We take circumcision so seriously that it is nearly a universal custom for all Jews, even for the people who are not born into a religious family. Oddly even for someone who fell off the turnup truck like me, my family knew enough to have me circumcised just in case one day I did decide to be religious; I’m sure most of you from a suburban, secular background get this. Everything stops and we perform brit milah on a boy at eight days old because here in this section of Torah it specifically tells us to:

“On the eighth day

the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

| Uvayom hashmini

| yimol besar orlato

Leviticus 12:3

From here we derive the custom of preferably performing it on the eighth day, and during the daylight, performing the mitzvah literally b’yom – meaning “on that day.” It is so important of a mitzvah that we rush to perform this on the eighth day even if it coincides with Shabbat! It is not just because the reception of this commandment predates the acceptance of Shabbat as our heritage, it is because this is a direct stipulation of the mitzvah itself as presented here. It stands alone as a positive mitzvah.

Now we should all be asking ourselves, why does it have to be on the eighth day? We can come up with folk logic and anecdotal medical theories as to why, but the truth is that the placement of this mitzvah does show that it is kind of related to the topic of female menstruation which is the first verse of this parsha (see Leviticus 12:1).

And this is why a lot of people don’t discuss it, first on the part of immature men who are too grossed out and oblivious about women’s reproduction to discuss it. It’s not just an issue of being tznius, its more of being squeamish about talking about a woman’s period. On the part of women, it’s because many of them are appalled that the Torah talks about a women’s period in terms of ritual purity; thinking we are talking about cleanliness instead of a state of ritual accountability. I want to remind us we are not talking about cleanliness at all, we are talking about being ritually pure to perform public and religious service, after all we are in Leviticus that concerns itself with priestly order and function more than anything else.

I’m not saying that this only applies to the priestly caste, no it relates to everyone. However this is a place in the Torah where we see the functions of the citizen Israelite and the priests meeting. No really, their obligations don’t just coincide but the priests and the Israelite actually meet up for reason of inspection of their ritual purity at a certain point after their time of separation and immersion in a mikveh. The priest are stated here to be the ones who determine if a person should return to ritual service in all cases; both after a form of “menstruation” which is childbirth (which is just a clumsy way of saying a vaginal discharge), and that of a skin discharge or irruption like tzaraat.

Despite how this looks on the surface, the Torah is not singling out women here. Nor is it degrading them, even though it can be almost seem like it is by some of the simplistic and quaint divrei Torah that men like to give about women’s issues. I’ll admit, there are a few reason that an egalitarian person might find themselves a bit appalled with the traditional take on Torah here. The first reason presented by most females is that the waiting period before returning to the Temple is twice as long if she gives birth to a girl than if one gave birth to a boy, and because the Torah present’s women’s menstruation first when dealing with human purity. Furthermore women’s menstruation is juxtaposing with the description of what makes animals kasher (kosher, meaning appropriate) and their blood.

I have to admit, maybe some men understand more about Jersey cows than women’s reproduction, but the Torah isn’t degrading women to the level of farm animals. Nor is it suggesting that we treat women like a piece of meat. Bodily discharge, as stated and presented throughout this parsha, is obviously an issue for men as well as women; chapter 15 of Leviticus details a mirroring immersion and purification process for a man with a seminal discharge to round out the message.

I have a personal reason why I believe the Torah starts our with women when it discusses human purity. First off, because women are the source of all life. The Torah does present the species of animals in a certain order in the creation story, and it does mirror that when presenting animals in Leviticus; domesticated animals, wild beasts, birds and then lastly the human animal. (see Rashi for Leviticus 12:1) But when it comes to the human animal is starts with the woman first, from whose womb life comes forth. Also, a female discharge be it related to menstruation or childbirth, it is just a matter of nature in the same way being a ritual unclean or not is a matter of nature for an animal. It’s not something they can help, it is natural and not consequential.

And because it is a natural process it is more recurrent, it’s probably logical that we deal with this one first. And also because the issue of female discharge is going to be something that is factored into the reason why we choose the eighth day to circumcise. It’s also going to hold some implications for how this affects the length of the then taharah period.

Though the topic is lengthy I want to try to keep it as simple as possible for us. We start out with the “yamim kimei nidat devotah titma / days of the menstruation period for which she is unclean.” She is unclean for seven days after her discharge, then immerses in a mikveh and at nightfall is ritually pure (tahor) and she is thus no longer tumah (ritually impure). Upon inspection we see that the man’s time of impurity is also seven days. This is always the case.

The reason why the menstruation period is first mentioned and then the circumcision is because we do not delay to rush to perform the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision). We need the mother and the child with her to be reintroduced to the midst of the camp and dedicated into the community of Israel as soon as possible, and the morning of the eighth day is the first time possible. Both circumcision and naming is on the eighth day when he is presented.

Though this idea seems to hold some merit, one thing it does not answer for us is why the period of tahara is twice as long for the women who gives birth to a girl as it is for a woman who gives birth to a son. Nor does it answer for us why her nidah is also twice as long, being 14 days for a girl instead of 7 days as with a boy.

The period of waiting for a boy is 33 of tehara after 7 days of nidah; combined we get 40 days. I’m sure most of us see so many significance we can draw from that. But I ask us all to remember, she is only unclean for 7 during her nidah period, but after that she has a state of blood-purity (tehara) for an additional 33 days for a boy. For a girl however the additional days of tehara is 66 days; combined with 14 days nidah comes to 80. It rounds them for one to be exactly double of the other.

But notice it does not say that she is unclean, no she is in a state of purity (tehara), so even if blood (or spotting) emerges from her she is considered pure. Thus if this occurs she is not forced to dwell outside of the camp as a quarantined person, like one recovering from a physical affliction. True, she is not permitted to bring an offering yet until after her tehara period has passed, even though she is already considered clean and back in her own home.

And this is what the command is primary about, namely to give a mother time to bond with her child. Though a woman is returned to the comfort of the community, she is not demanded to return to the regular tasks of daily life. This is made clear to us by the words stating that she should not touch “kodesh,” meaning she should not eat of the holy donations or offerings of the Temple, nor should she enter into the holy Sanctuary. Though this offers an extended break from returning to the burdens of life for all new mothers, it is especially so for the Levite mothers by not requiring them to be active in the mechanism of Temple worship until after a time of rest.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the generations of Jewish mothers and the rebbetzins of our communities. Too often we consider the work of the rabbis and spiritual leaders, but forget the equal contribution that has been made by their partners. More often than not we get a two for one deal, by receiving not only a shliach but also gaining an equally dedicated partner along with them. Most often these are the people who plan our events, provide the elaborate onegs and simchas, work as educators, organize charity work, perform counseling and engage in the visiting of the sick, and a myriad of other tasks that people assume just happen on their own. Many times people think of the women contributors of our communities like we do the female Levites in this story, we fail to see the contribution they make because we perceive of their job of being present in the Sanctuary in order to consume the kodesh only as a privilege, but not for the truly demanding responsibility that it is. We fail to see all the background work and demands that come with it.

The Torah thus prescribes a forty-day rest for a mother after she gives birth to son and eighty days after giving birth to a daughter. In order to allow a time of rest, providing the mother her space to bond with the child and to recuperate both physically and emotionally. This also relieves her of the requirement to be examined by the priest for a question of ritual uncleanliness until after this resting period, which intern releases her from any type of concerns that would subject her to being set outside the camp for any reason.

It is true that our parsha does have one seeming inequality to it, something that almost can’t be helped giving the culture during the age of the Bible. The Torah through this command does show a great concern with introducing the male child quicker to the world of Jewish ritual than it does with females. Though a circumcision does not require one to go to the Temple, it can and will be performed literally anywhere and on any day of the week that the eighth day falls on; special considerations of ritual cleanliness would not play here. But it does for instances of a first-born male, which should be redeemed by the priests (traditionally done anytime after 31 days after birth). Our Torah does give preference that a male child should be able to be introduced to the full religious community as early as 40 days after the birth of the boy.

Though the period is extended to 80 days for the birth of a female. However even in this inequality the Torah appears to me to show a certain sense of tenderness. It seems to me to extend the period of assumed “blood cleanliness” and suspends health inspections of the mother and her daughter, as logic dictates that this would be more true in the cause of females (who are prone to spotting).

However I think it goes a bit deeper. I believe the reason for allowing a double portion of rest for the mother who gives birth to a daughter is because our Torah understands the unique bond between a mother and daughter that should not be so rushed. A mother should not be so quickly rushed away from the bedside of a daughter that she uniquely relates to through empathy and a unique form of consanguinity.

Whereas our parsha fails to deliver in “equality,” it does something touching in asking up to give twice as much chesed (kindness) to the females in our lives.


Parshat Vayikra (2013)


Leviticus 1 – 5

 Matzah and Marinades: Leviticus in Light of Passover

Our parsha and this new book of the Torah begins with and is also summarized by the words of its first verse:

“And [He] called to Moses

and Hashem spoke to him

out of the Tent of Meeting, saying…”

| Viyikra el-Moshe

| vayadaber Hashem elav

| meohel moed lemor

Leviticus 1:1

This books reveals a discussion that is initiated by G-d, the people had previously out of fear asked that Moses address G-d for them. (see Exodus 20:14-17) Rashi says that though the voice of G-d was spoken and able to be heard by all, to most of the people it was perceived as a small voice. But in a private audience G-d spoke with Moses, who heard his message loudly and clearly in order for it to be articulated to the people. This is because G-d spoke to him in from one set place, the Ohel Moed – the Tent of Meeting.

No ChametzNow we must ask ourselves what the Ohel Moed actually is.

At times we see that G-d spoke with Moses near this place, as we see earlier in the Exodus journey where Moses pitches his own tent in order to meet with G-d outside of the camp. When Moses arrived the presence of G-d would descend as a cloud outside of the entrance of the tent and speak with Moses. Moses would sit in there and commune with G-d, and his assistant Yehosuah ben Nun – Joshua, the future judge and his successor – would stand there as a constant attendant to these discourses. This is a moed, a meeting place but it’s not yet the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary. However Rashi sees this as a precursor to the Mishkan. (see Exodus 33:7)

And of course we have the Mishakan also spoken of as an Ohel Moed not far off in the same book of Exodus. There we see that G-d does not speak to Moses as he sat inside that moed, but instead G-d spoke from inside of it. This is very different, at this point the Tabernacle is stationed in the very middle of the camp as a dedicated sanctuary to G-d. The presence of G-d fills the tent and speaks from inside, to Moses who stood outside of it as the presence of G-d was too overwhelming for him to enter. (see Exodus chapter 40)

Our Torah speaks of the Ohel Moed in different fashions even over the small span of a few chapters, but by that we see that the Ohel Moed is a concept instead of a rigid and specific proper noun. Its like the American presidential Jet, which ever plane the President of the United States occupies becomes designated Airforce One. A moed is a designated place out of time and space. It refers to any temporary place that was occupied by the presence of G-d before the establishment of a permanent Temple site.

It is the second of these meanings that is going to drive this book of Leviticus. Not only is G-d going to speak to Moses from this place, but he is also going to speak to him very specifically about the manner of conduct for this site and the rituals concerning it. He is to relay these commandments to the people.

G-d begins to speak to Moses, and to the people through him, the words, “Ki-yak’riv mikem kar’ban / when any man brings….” G-d speaks to Moses very definitely in this statement, not if the people want to bring an offering they should do this and that, but when the do they do. Our sages contend this place of meetings was created out of their need. Moses spoke with G-d at his tent because the people needed someone to represent them at their request, then later G-d provided them a tent of worship because they immensely needed that form of expression as graphically acted out in their repeated experimentation with foreign religion. As we go into this book we need to dispel from our minds that G-d needed anything from these rituals and institutions, but realize at a fundamental level the people needed a form of spiritual expression and representation. These institutions were created for human necessity to connect spiritually.

This might be hard for us to understand because for the most part in our culture in the west we have been conditioned into thinking that the primary purpose of the Temple rituals was as a remedy for sin. We will see that at the end of our parsha there is going to be the laws laid out for sacrifices relating to sin – the chatat offering for foolish sins and minor infractions, as seen in chapter four and the first half of chapter five. Then there is the guilt offerings – the asham – for unintentional sins and for misuse of sacred property, for which a person first must pay restitution before drawing near in sacrificial worship again; this is seen in the latter part of chapter five. I must note in review, it is interesting that we see no remedy for intentional sin mentioned at all provided in the Temple offerings.

However the bulk of our parsha here is going to concern itself with laying out the other more normative forms of offerings that were given in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.

In chapter one it is mostly going to deal with detailing the laws pertaining to Olah – to burnt offering, specifically of animals. It will define that when one wants to bring such an offering they were able to bring from the cattle or herd of their flocks. This was a special offering entirely for worship, therefore no part of it was eaten by anyone. There were options ranging from bulls to small birds, allowing people of all classes to offer as they could afford. But it clearly only allows animals as meat offerings, only the savory meat of animals proper for consumption would be permissible. Olah means to go up, specifically for the smoke of these meats to rise up as a “ruach nichoach l’Hashem / savory fragrance to Hashem,” or a sweet smell. It would go up entirely in smoke, often mixed with other forms of sacrifice as well. It is easily regarded as a true sacrifice because of the forfeiture of its alah, the cost associate with it.

Of course not all offerings were complete sacrifices, and indeed not all of them were for sin. We also have the Zibach Shlamim – the Peace Offering, or Well-Being Sacrifice. We need to understand that this name does not mean it was offered up completely (shalem) in smoke, but that it was zibach (animal sacrifice) as an act of completion (shalam). This was an offering brought by a person who had something to celebrate. At the end of any endeavor or in celebration of any event a person could bring an offering that would be added to the altar of the daily offerings, the fatty parts offered in fire while the celebrants and the priests would feast upon a portion of the meat. This was a sort of thanksgiving offering, which is discussed at length through Leviticus chapter three; a meal shared between the celebrant, the priests and G-d.

But the heart of the sacrificial system we have the Mincha offering – the grain or meal offering discussed in chapter two. This really was the most common form of Temple offering. It also held special restrictions like the animal offerings of the Olah, making it on par with the meat offering as a “kaddosh kadoshim / a most holy thing.” (see Leviticus 2:3) In a way it helpful for us to start by thinking of chapter two as being the grain and fruits leg of the Temple offerings; the first chapter was meats, now the second chapter is all about fruits.

However the Mincha offerings was more than just an organic alternative, it was the most common of the offerings, so much so that it was offered up everyday in the afternoon. The commonality seems to stem from a few factors, among them being the fact that grain offerings were inexpensive and accessible for all to contribute. Secondly in this agrarian society first-fruits were in a constant cycle of ripening and needing to be offered in gratitude to G-d. Though this Mincha offering is almost a mixture in between the Shlamim and the Olah, because whereas it is sacred and not consumed by the ordinary Israelites, it may be consumed by the priests. A handful portion of grain from it would be offered on the open-air altar, and then the priests would eat the rest of any grain in the form of unleavened loaves of bread. Essentially all the daily Mincha offerings were Kosher l’Pesach – Acceptable for Passover.

But for just a second, I want us to hold up and look at the Mincha offerings. Grasping the rules for it are not actually all that complex, the grain offerings lacked the fat and some of the fragrance of the fatty meats offered on the altar. That is essentially why the hides were not burnt, but the fatty meats were offered up for the savory smoke that would raise up from it as it burned. In order that the grain offering rise up in simular fashion it was mixed with oil and frankincense, fats to help it burn and incense to provide the ruach nichoach – the fragrant scent. The grain offering was thus dressed so that it would also produce a sweet smoke that would fill the camp and rise to the heavens. It was further seasoned with salt, just like the flesh of the animal sacrifices, to further show that its grain was on the same level of holiness as that of the flesh of animals. In fact we are warned to not forget this salting for any offering. (see Leviticus 2:13)

However for the grain offering there are two select restrictions that accompany it in this parsha. Though theoretically they also apply to the other offerings as well, they are concerns that only primarily rise when considering grain offerings:

“Any meal-offerings

which you shall offer to Hashem

shall be made without chametz,

for any leavening and honey

you shall not offer as an offering to Hashem.”

| Kol-haminchah

| asher takrivu l’Hashem

| lo te’aseh chametz

| ki chol-se’or vechol-dvash

| lo-taktiru mimenu isheh l’Hashem.

Leviticus 2:11

As we look at this commandment I hardly need to translate the word chametz – we understand this to mean leavening. But as we can see there are clearly two different words offered for leavening here in this parsha; the first is chametz, the second is se’or. During this Passover season we are careful to clear out the chametz from our homes. We do not just look for yeast in our house, we look for any form of fermentable or fermentation product in our homes. Any untempered grain product that is left wet will begin to decay and turn chametz given enough time to rest and undergo this chemical process. This is often helped by sugar and heat as catalysts to this process, which is why bakers and brewers carefully monitor these factors.

If any product that is grain can become chametz under the right conditions then we must ask ourself what se’or is and what distinguished it from satisfactorily being covered by the term chametz. Se’or is a type of chametz, and we also look for any of these types of chametz also during this season, but it is not just a latent form of chametz. Like the honey the se’or is an additive, like a yeast-cake. However, fundamentally it is the same, in that yeast additives were created by leaving a piece of dough aside to grow as a starter batch, this sour-dough starter that would be added to a new lump of dough with the sweetener in order to quickly aid the rising of the bread. The word se’or comes from root word se’ar which means a remainder, it is the rest of a mixture or the other part that is left behind; this is because a sour-dough process is merely utilizing a left over piece of chametz from a previous lump of dough.

In light of this during this season it is common for all Jews to review every item in our homes, to remove all forms of chametz. We take this very seriously because chametz represents sin and pride, things that we should remove from our lives during this time of relection and liberation. We don’t merely remove the intentionally and obvious like the se’or, but we also actively and primarily engage in seeking out the latent and less obvious manifestations of chametz – of sin and pride in our lives. Here at the start of our spring harvest season, and indeed our spiritual and celestial New Year, we deal with chametz and sin before their ripened fruits sour upon us.

Ordinarily we reckon our tables as symbolic altars already, doing our sacred mitzvot upon it, things like kiddush, motzie, havdalah and learning. Religious Jews are careful to eat kasher – that which is acceptable and appropriate – the food that we place upon it is as carefully considered as if it were given as an offering, never placing improper mixtures upon it just like we would never allow on the altar of the Temple. But during this Pesach holiday we get to further raise our tables to sacred status by also not placing any form of chametz on it in the same manner that chametz wasn’t allowed in the sacrifical offerings. During Pesach our table is given one more profound way of modeling sacredness in our homes and lives as we abstain from chametz.

We can see an understanding for why we shouldn’t add chametz to our offerings, but by itself we see no clear reason to prohibit the offering of honey. What could be so wrong with sweetening the offerings? Adding a bit of honey to the meat would marinate the animal offerings beautifully and if added liberally to wheat it would make a sweet cake out of the plain flour.

Our great rabbis also provide us several reasons why should not offer chametz or honey, the Rambam tells us that the idolaters were of the custom to only offer leavened bread and sweet foods with meats smeared with honey; we are not to follow after like manner, therefore the scriptures do not allow honey or leavening upon the altar at all. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46) This would make sense, a lot of the machmir restrictions we apply to foods is because of the association with idolatry.

However our tradition still has much room to weigh in with symbolic reasons. The Sefer haChinuch likens theses two prohibited substances to two type characteristics that we need to overcome if we are to really repent and offer a truly atoning sacrifice. First off we must not be lazy, chemtz is created when a lump of dough is left resting and isn’t worked. (see Soft Matzah: Bread of affliction or fluffy goodness) Its culture begins to spreads through it and inflates the lump as it rests, but will not do so while it remains worked. In constrast, repentance is an active process that we must engage in before G-d and in making restitution to the people we have wronged. While honey likewise represents the yetzer hara (the evil impulse) in another fashion, its sweetness represents lust and unbridled desire. A prohibition against honey is a stand against that sweet-tooth that we need to keep in check as a repentant person.

The Rebbe Maharash – Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch, the son of the Tzemach Tzedek also teaches us that there are two symbolic and mystical reasons why we are not allowed to offer up chametz or honey. He warns us that we should learn to not be people of extremes, even things as seemingly simple as leavening and honey are harmful if generously applied.

He teaches us that chametz represents the type of person that is constantly bitter and angry at the world. In fact all chametz (leavening) is rooted in chamutz – in bitterness, which is its shoresh (root-word). This is representation of a bitter soul, of the type of person that is constantly mad at the world. This is representative of the man with a chip on his shoulder, constantly ready to argue with anyone. The person who is ever critical and unable to see anything good in the world.

And then in contrast there is the other type of extremity as represented by honey, of the person that is overly sweet and cordial. They are constantly cheerful and nothing ever phases them. They have a hard time seeing the bitterness and evil caused by sinful people in this world. A saccharin sweetness that seems almost unnatural because it covers up the true bitterness present in anything, for which we are warned leads to judging both the wicked and righteous of the world by the same relativistic standard.

The Rebbe Maharash thus teaches us that we must learn to not be people of extremes, we must neither be too bitter nor too sweet. This quality control of the sacrifices, by neither allowing chametz or honey, hints to the type of control we must master over our emotions.

I think these are all great ideas to keep in mind as we put aside our sweet and fluffy challah and bring out our matzot during this passover season.


Parshat Bechukotai (2012)


Parshat Bechukotai (2012)
Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”


And you will flee when no one is pursuing you” (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם, Lev. 26:17) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

With this weeks parsha we are completing the Book of Leviticus. This year this parsha is paired together with Parshat Behar as a double-parsha. This entire book of Leviticus has been related to the establishment of the Miskhan (the Tabernacle) and detailing the service and expectations that was laid upon the people of Israel. As we start this parsha we notice that all of a sudden the tone switches from talking about the responsibilities of the nation, to stating what the benefits and consequences of adherence to the Torah’s commandments are.

This parsha is quite short, less than two complete chapters in it’s entirety. And the aliyot (the individual readings) are also quite short as well. Normally people would be thrilled that they have a shorter section to learn to lein (Yiddish meaning cantillation, read in its proper melody from the Torah scroll), but this is not an easy reading. The sections that detail the curses and judgments are most often read by the most competent reader, because according to our tradition it is to be delivered in a very different fashion from any other Shabbat Torah reading; it is to be read in a whispering tone, and as quickly as possible. We read it this way in order to not arouse or incite judgment, and so that we do not dwell on negativity.

Though the differences become apparent even before the reading begins. Normally being called up to the Torah is the greatest honor one can have. In our tradition we are so repulsed by the idea of leveling judgment against people that the person who is called up to read these sections of curses does not allow themselves to be customarily called up by name to honor them for their reading. No matter how “qualified” one is in Torah learning, we are never to take pride in being associated with the calamity that befalls someone for their wrongdoing.

The world-over it is the general custom of the religious leaders to make themselves famous for preaching fire and brimstone. People literally yelling from the rooftops, with great satisfaction in themselves, all the ways that one can be harmed and punished. But here when it comes to delivering the tragedy of punishment we as Jews are not allowed to raise our voices, nor are we to linger upon the suffering of the sinner. We discuss it because we must, but G-d forbid that this happen to someone. We mildly and quickly get through this task as we take no joy in it.

The difficulty of reading this parsha though really is more in the message, more so than being an issue of skill. It is especially difficult for the Jewish people because it really does seem to begin going through a point-by-point presentation of the sufferings Jews have experienced, even though this was written long before the expulsions and persecutions in exile.Sadly we know the Torah is right about this because it really happened, and so recently in our history that it pains people greatly still to this day in a very raw way. These things can happen, it’s a tragic truth. In light of this the discussion then naturally seems to lead to asking “why,” instead of debating the “if.”

But if we are to answer the question that is expressed as “Why did this happen? Did we really deserve this?” we must first deal with an even less sophisticated question that goes, “How can a good G-d do this? Why did He make this happen?” It’s almost seems like a fair question because the horrors in this parsha are so extreme it seems inconceivable that G-d would do these things to His people. The key error lies in the understanding of the words “do” and “make,” implying such calamity is the work of G-d.

But unsophisticated questions tend to demand equally ill-formed answers. The way the gentile nations have generally answered this question is by turning to polytheism, good gods do good and bad gods cause evil. Their attempts at monotheism are still even colored through this perception, in which evil is personified in “the devil.” However, as Jews we are not permitted this luxury of dualism. We are challenged to have to deal with G-d’s role in all this because the scriptures clearly tell us that both good and evil are caused by Him alone. We read in book of Isaiah the profound declaration:

“From the rising of the sun and from the west

there is nothing besides Me

I am Hashem, there is nothing else.

I form light and create darkness,

makes peace and creates evil;

I Hashem do all these things.”

| “Mimez’rach shemesh umima’aravah

| ki-efes bil’adai:

| ani Hashem v’ain od

| yotzer or uvorei chosech,

| oseh shalom uvorai ra;

| ani Hashem oseh kol eyleh”

Isaiah 45:6-7

Traditional Judaism has always maintained this understanding of G-d, because logic naturally dictates that if G-d is omnipotent (all powerful) then everything must be ordered by Him alone. However, orthodoxy is neither naïve nor trite. It does not place G-d in the position of a tit-for-tat enforcer nor does it over simplify the nature of individual suffering, our tradition can’t because the scriptures do not suggest this at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it really is basic Judaism; but something I can go into volumes with. Verse 7 above is paraphrased as part of our liturgical reading of the morning, it is said daily as part of the blessings to the Shema (our most holy confession). We recognize that G-d creates the world daily. G-d is active in the world, not in just some distant point in history but still today and everyday renewing the act of creation. However this is a distinct difference between what is formed and made, and that which is merely created. In the void He formed the world, fashioning it; G-d made the universe. And when He formed it He created it in a balanced state of fullness and light, He provided everything that was needed to sustain that world. However, evil and woe are like darkness. They not necessarily a thing, it’s the void and aftermath that is left as a result in the breakdown of the proper function and order in our lives. Other times its just a the absence of the good stuff getting to that place yet. There are two lessons in that: 1) that just like life has good times, there are also bad times, 2) woe and hardship are not a formulated response, but merely the unfortunate result of things not going according to ordered plans.

G-d as creator made us to function well, under good and optimum circumstances just like any good designer would. G-d created this world as a brilliant form of craftsmanship, with all the features and accessories needed to help us get the job done. For us to be mad when life breaks-down is like being upset with a manufacturer because our plans for using their product didn’t pan out or we just didn’t use it properly. It isn’t realistic or proper for us to look at the world that way. The responsibility of the Divine was to give us the best chance in real situations, not to vow to save us against from every possible annoying fluke.

When we comprehend that, then we can be a bit more adult in our ways of looking at the words “do” and “make.” G-d doesn’t do anything to us, any more than He makes us do anything; those are very childish words if we use them in this tone. Instead G-d takes responsibility in being the creator who created us to function best when in line with His instructions. He should not been seen as a manufacturer who is designing a product to blow up in our faces at the first wrong step.

So in this mentality G-d nonetheless takes responsibility. He stands behind His product, disclosing what it takes for it to perform properly and warning us of how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because things most certainly do have a habit of going wrong at some point, that is the nature of life.

Troubleshooting Life

Do you need to troubleshoot life? I know I do, and often. Any of you who have ever worked for a help-desk know troubleshooting skills not just requires the knowledge of the complex, but also attention to the subtle. The range of what someone points to as “wrong” can span from a total malfunction to merely just someone’s baseless dissatisfaction.

One of the first tedious parts of troubleshooting is to have to go over the instructions. Are we doing everything that we are supposed to do in order to get the appropriate results? Our text explains to us as follows:

“And if you do not listen to Me,

and do not do all these commandments,

and if you grow tired of My orders

and if you loath My laws

so that you will not do all My commandments

and thus break My covenant,

after that I will make this to happen to you…”

| V’im lo tish’mu li;

| v’lo ta’asu et kol ha mitzvot ha’eileh

| v’im bechukotai tim’asu

| v’im et mishpatai

| tig’al nafshechem l’vilti asot et kol mitvotai

| l’hafrecheim et briti,

| Af ani ei’eseh zot lachem

Leviticus 26:14-16a

The Torah warns us if we do not abide by all these ways we are breaking our “terms of service agreement.” If we do this we are gonna break our lives! No really, look at the text again. It first wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing.

Then the text goes into explaining what to look out for, the warning signs of malfunction:

“I will appoint upon you panic;

with consumption and fever,

and I will completely destroy your sight,

and make you depressed,

and you will sow your seed in vain,

and your enemies will eat it.

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And I will set my face against you

and you will be defeated before you enemies;

and you will flee

when no one is pursuing you

| V’hifkadeti aleichem behalah

| et ha’mishachepet ve’et hakadachat

| m’chalot einaim,

| umedivot nafesh;

| uz’ra’tem larik zar’achem

| va’achaluhu oi’veichem.

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| V’natati panai bachem,

| v’nigaf’tem lifnei oi’veichem;

| v’radu vachem son’eichem

| v’nas’tem v’ain rodeif at’chem

Leviticus 26:16b-17

The first troubles that the Torah presents us with as signs of judgment are subtle and mild, but can easily be mistaken for something else all together.

This first wave of curses is very perplexing and even troublesome. What are we saying about G-d; that He causes us to have panic, depression and such? Are we saying that G-d takes control of our emotions in order to wreck them? And these inflictions, are we suggesting that G-d causes illness in us?

In our tradition the points of free-will and the fairness of such a course of actions is not even an issues to grapple with. The Rambam interprets Midrash Rabba concerning creation to be surmised in the idea that “only good descends from G-d above.” (Rambam, Guide For The Perplexed, III:X; concerning Midrash Rabba Chapter 1, p. 266). When G-d creates He makes everything good, just as we read in the creation story the continual phrase is used “and G-d saw all that He created and behold it was good.” And we firmly believe G-d does not give illness nor does He impose on our emotions. How can it be that here we have G-d being described as causing both physical and mental inflictions?

The Rambam, as a physician, gave us a unique perspective in how to interpret this. In fact he gives us one of the only interpretations from among the classics that we have to examine. That is not to say the commentators didn’t deal with these verses, they wrote lengthy commentary on these sections. However, they could only give us a description of what the symptoms were. The Rambam was more concerned with what the cause was. As a physician he realized that in order to bring remedy we must first recognize the cause, as a condition is not merely a set of symptoms that need to be alleviate. The symptoms of illness are merely a reflection of the extent to which disease has advanced.

As pointed out the world was created “good,” and in fact when all the living creatures were created He declared that everything was “tov me’od / very good;” (Genesis 1:31). He created life and the world good, and then some. Nonetheless as we have learned from Isaiah, G-d does say that He causes ra – harm, evil, and calamity. However, as the Rambam point out early on in the Guide, things such as good and evil are only descriptions in relations to something. He says this is like saying “round” or “flat.” Not either physical property is good or bad necessarily, it is just a description of how we perceive something. How it looks to us. Such words are very similar in meaning and relation to the terms emet and sheker; true and false. It’s a description and qualification, not a judgment or characterization.

The Rambam explains to us that this similarly can also be applied to the words oseh and bara; makes and created. When G-d created to world He created, meaning he made something from nothing. There was nothing, no universe or anything to function. Then He created the world purposefully, everything He made has a function. He points out that that G-d also created things such as the mouth, eyes and ears so that we can speak, see, and hear. Though the Rambam points out the following verse to demonstrate his philosophical view of what happens when something goes wrong in this natural world:

“And Hashem said to him:

Who places a mouth in man,

or who makes one mute,

or deaf

or see

or blind;

I Hashem.”

| Vayomer Hashem elav

| mi sam peh la’adam

| o mi-yasum ilem

| o cheresh

| o fike’ach

| o iver halo

| anochi Hashem.

Exodus 4:11

The Rambam explains that this verse teaches that each of the body parts were created for their function. That when the function is withheld it merely means that the body part doesn’t work properly, we don’t jump to the odd suggestion that a person must not have a mouth if they can’t talk, or eyes if they can’t see, nor ears if they can’t hear. But that G-d as maker of those body parts is the one who takes responsibility for the issue as He is he only thing in the universe, He is solely its creator, there is no one else to blame; He is responsible by default and does not shirk that in any way. Then He sums it up with “I am Hashem,” its okay to hold Me responsible; I’m big enough to take it.

But if we consider it, the above mentioned maladies are examples of things that are not necessarily inflictions, but withholding of an appropriate function; example, He gave a mouth but didn’t give the speech. We need to see the terrible things mentioned in our parsha as a mere result of G-d withholding blessing – and not necessarily imposing a causative and active role of punishment. He just isn’t providing what we need for our lives to work right. Nachon, got it?

Not Being Run Out: Sometimes we run from blessing, instead of being driven

I know I have kept you for a long study, with me ranting on. But it is very important for us to look at the symptoms, the characteristics of these maladies caused by us not living properly and according to the rules set out for our lives in Torah. And by looking at them we will also see that they are really things that have their root more in us than in G-d. They are:

Panic (בֶּהָלָה) – literally fear, and sudden terror. Panic and terror will begin to consume you. One will begin to be overcome by fear and frenzy.

Consumption (הַשַּׁחֶפֶת) – literally wasting disease and emaciation. One’s health looks swept away, they being to look anguished. Rashi says this means consumption of the face, so that one begins to look sad in the face due to wasting. People often used this term historically to describe illnesses like tuberculosis, wasted away and pained to that point.

Fever (הַקַּדַּחַת) – this is very simple to understand, it simple means fever, and the results of sever illness like malaria. But the Radak tells us this can be understood as “fire in the bones;” that is how intense the effects are. Rashi also sees this connotation, and says furthermore it can be understood as being fired up to the point one is enraged, and furious (citing Deut. 32:22) The fire inside, be it in our body or emotions, burns too hot and to our detriment. Fever like fury can overwhelm a person to the point of an overwhelming trembling and loss of control over their functions and composure.

Destroy your sight (מְכַלּוֹת) – G-d will allow our outlook to be destroyed. (Rav Hirsch) We begin to experience impairment of our faculties. As we look into our future all we will see is uncertainty and doubt, which leads to the next infliction…

Depression (וּמְדִיבֹת) – we will become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness (Rav Hirsch). We will be overcome by debilitating depression and sorrow.

The parsha continues on describing other things that are less easily understood as being rooted in our own defect; that we will sow in vain, our enemies will reap from our hard work instead of us. But in the last clauses of verse 17 we see G-d does have a undeniable hand in all of this, because He sets His attention towards us and yet we are defeated by our enemies. G-d watches on, as we fall into calamity; not coming to our aid.

But before we get carried away and try to relieve ourselves of responsibility the Torah continues and shows a truly tragic truth of what happens when we live a life outside of Torah blessing, we aren’t run out from blessing; quite to the contrary.

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

In the end, the yeridah – the descent and fall into bondage and foreign oppression is of our own doing. Often times we aren’t carried away, no one forces us out of a place of peaceful living; we are so haunted and hunted by our avoidance of our Torah responsibilities that we run from ourselves until we find we are not longer free to return on our own terms. It further describes this type of paranoia in verses 36-37, that we will become overwhelmed by insecurity, that even the rustling leaves will send us running in fright, like being chased by a sword though no one is there; that we are so overcome by our invisible fears that we, and those that accompany our descent, stumble over each other; running from insecurities rooted in our own conscience.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Though there are all kinds of unspeakable things displayed for us as hardships for improper living and not honoring the Torah, G-d still holds out to us a hand of mercy. Though we might get worse, and worse, and worse yet the more we run from ourselves; in the end G-d says that He will not just write us off. No, instead He declares that no matter how far we run, He is intent on setting us right in the end; not to leave us ultimately to our disrepair.

“Yet even after all that, even

when they are in the land of their enemies

I will not reject them, nor abhor them,

nor grow tired of them

and then break my covenant with them –

for I am Hashem, your G-d

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But I will for their sakes remember

the covenant of their ancestors,

whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt

in the sight of the nations,

that I might be their G-d:

I am Hashem.”

| Ve’af-gam-zot

| biheiotam be’eretz oiveihem

| lo-me’astim velo-ge’altim

| lechalotam

| lehafer briti itam

| ki ani Hashem Eloheihem.

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| Vezacharti lahem

| brit rishonim

| asher hotzeti-otam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| le’einei hagoyim

| lihiot lahem le-Elohim

| ani Hashem

Leviticus 26:44-45

Though G-d does not write us off, and promises to ultimately grant redemption to use all, liberating us eventually; it does not necessarily say this life, though. It is true that all Israel has a share in the world to come (Pirkei Avot). But ignoring Torah has consequences. G-d does not cast people out of His kingdom for their humanity and faults; He will make a place for us all, in a way only He understands. It will come about by Him remembering His promise and the merit of our ancestors. This should comfort us. But on the other hand we should be a bit saddened by this explanation; because the truth is the suffering and being run amok could end at any time if we just decided to remember His covenant and the meritorious lives displayed by our Jewish ancestors.


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