Tag Archives: Purim

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 Shemini (2012)


Parshat Shemini (2012)
Leviticus 9:1-11:47

What the Torah Tells Us About Holding Your Drink

In this weeks parsha, we read of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon who died after brining “aish zarah / strange fire” in their incense pans and placed it upon the altar. The scheme of the parasha like most of this book does not go in chronological order necessarily, but this incident hangs over the whole parsha. We aren’t exactly sure what this means.The sages gives us the opinions that either they arrogantly brought foreign corruption upon the sacred altar, others suggest that they were caught up in a form of fatal religious ecstasy. (see Leviticus 10:1-2)

Though we aren’t sure exactly for what reason they died, it was such a dramatic and heartbreaking loss on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle Sanctuary – that G-d changes directions. Up until now He speaks to Mosheh – to Moses – but now in compassion He reaches out to Aharon directly.

“And Hashem spoke to Aharon saying:

You shall not drink strong wine to intoxication,

nor your sons,

when you enter into the Ohel Moed [the Tent of Meeting]

so that you do not die.

This is an eternal statute throughout your generations.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Aharon lemor:

| Yayin veshechar al-tesht atah

| uvanelcha

| itach bevo’achem el-Ohel Mo’ed

| velo tamutu,

| chukat olam ledoroteichem.

Leviticus 10:8-9

Does that mean that one is not allowed to drink wine when on duty? Not necessarily. The key word here in our text here is veshechar – from the simple Hebrew word “shechar / to make one drunk.” Rashi citing the opinion of the Sifra says that this doesn’t mean just to drink alcoholic beverages; but to drink a lot, undiluted, and uninterrupted until it leads to intoxication. (Sifra/Torat Kohanim 10:35) Because the key point is intoxication Ibn Ezra and the Sadia Gaon say this also applies to any other intoxicant aside from wine as well.

Noticing that this comes just after Moses instructed Aharon regarding the proper practice of the priestly duties, and immediately after the instructions regarding ritual purity. (see Parshat Shemini-2011) If we look at the text it is not hard to understand that the prohibition against Temple service while intoxicated is to safeguard one from accidents that could result in death. This ritual service is powerful and needs to be taken on with solemness, intention and sobriety.

But it’s more than just that. The priests not only had to take into consideration their own ritual cleanliness, but also that of the people they were appointed to serve. Notice the Torah continues on by stating it this way:

“So that you will be able to distinguish

between holy and profane (or the common),

and between the ritually unclean and the pure.”

| Ulehavdil

| bein hakodesh uvein hachol

| uvein hatame uvein hatahor.

Leviticus 10:10

Though strictly speaking, like most of the laws of Leviticus, these were originally mostly intended to apply to the Levitical priests and sons of Aharon. The priests acted in many functions, their chief responsibilities were not just to ritual but also serving as the physicians. Peoples inflictions and infections would be examined and a course of action prescribed, then followed up with them to insure they were cured.

But the post-Temple world, in the absence of the Temple cult and the change of station regarding purity in this void (all of us being ritually unclean, because we don’t have the Temple there is no essential remedy nor application for cultic purity) our rabbis broadened these commandments and helped apply them to the everyday lives of the common Jew.

But for the rabbis, the teachers and legal chiefs of our people, they also took from it a very solemn personal understanding based on the continuing verse:

“To instruct [also render decisions]

the Children of Israel

in the statutes

that Hashem spoken unto you

from the hand of Moses”

| Ulehorot

| et-benei Yisrael

| et kol-hachukim

| asher diber Hashem aleihem

| beyad-Moshe.

Leviticus 10:11

The sanheidrin, the assembly of the people always existed since biblical times in some fashion. (see Parshat Shoftim 2011) But in the absence of an active priesthood many of the functions fell squarely on the shoulders of the scholars and sages – our rabbis. They began to instruct and became the only body of people to render decisions and instructions for us. They declared that we should understand this to mean that one should not lay down halachic decisions when intoxicated. The priests weren’t allowed, neither should we. Not that the position is the same, the level of severity for an intoxicated priest is seemingly great enough to demand the death penalty, but it is not so for a mere teacher from among the congregation of Israel. That does not mean that one’s intoxication might not lead to their death, but it doesn’t demand it either in the case of a scholar. (see Rashi for v.11)

But as we look over this text we can begin to see that safety is not the only key issue here. The other is that one is not able to give judgment on matters of good and bad, sacred and profane when impaired. How can one whose senses are numbed and is not of a clear mind be able to distinguish between the two? This reason of temperance to maintain responsibility is equally important. Rashi teaches us in his commentary for verse 10 that a priest who performs any type of service or work his deeds are “avodato pesulah / his service is invalid” when drunk. Not just invalid but pasul – meaning inappropriate.

Just because Torah nor Jewish Law demands exacting punishment doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences when one gives in to debauchery. (see “When Redemption Turns Fatal: Atonement and the implications of premature death) But we cannot safeguard ourselves, nor be useful and appropriate when we do not have the clarity of mind to distinguish between good and bad.

Our tradition, where as it demands solemn sobriety of mind when it comes to our responsibilities, it does not demand that we become teetotalers. Halacha does not demand that we go dry and abstain. But it does step out of the normal narrative with G-d Himself speaking to an individual and asking him to warn for future generations of the dangers of losing ones sensibility to inebriation.

Wine is a very important part of our tradition, we make Kiddish on it because it is a symbol of joy and celebration for each Shabbat and holiday. We are just coming out of Pesach with the four large cups we drink. Alcohol is not something taboo or disapproved; in fact if anything it is prescribed. So much so that some people make issue with one certain holiday because in all Jewish communities we are accustomed to drinking significantly on it; it is on Purim, which we celebrated just a few short months ago. And it is ordinarily prescribed that we not just drink, but drink to full intoxication. This is not just some obscure tradition by any measure, it comes from the Talmud itself.

Let us look at this text because it also gives us some good historical background and a good lesson to learn about how to handle our drink when we are partying. The Mishnah states:

“Rava said: It is the duty of a man

to make himself bisumi

[intoxicated, lucid, mellow]

on Purim until

he doesn’t know the difference between

‘Cursed is Haman’ and

‘Blessed is Mordechi.'”

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש |

לבסומי |

|

בפוריא |

עד דלא ידע בין |

ארור המן |

לברוך מרדכי |

Mishnah, Megilah 7b

According to our tradition, we are told by the Mishnah, the highest and authoritative level of oral tradition and case law, that one is to become intoxicated and make revelry until he cannot distinguish the difference between the mention of the name of evil Haman and saintly Mordechi during the reading of Megillat Esther. We begin to enjoy ourselves and loosen up to the point that not even the mention of our foe can bring us down – its all good in our haze of liquid joy and communal celebration. We are encouraged to get caught up in the ecstasy.

Now historicallyy we should understand that wine in the biblical times was not just for celebration, it was also used for everyday table use as a regular drink like we would soda, tea or juice today at our dinner table. Water was often of such poor quality wine was safer to drink, and to avoid intoxication wine would be watered down. In this diluted and yet still acidic state the plain water would not be as harmful or foul-tasting. Not that all wine was made to be highly intoxicating to begin with.

In fact to reach intoxication often times fragrant spices (Heb. basamim) and other additives were loaded into wine and drinks. Even resins (such as from the balsam tree, see בלסם) were known to be utilized by the Greeks for causing elucidation and intoxication. Others uses myrrh and frankincense as well in the days of the Temple and rishonim. For this reason it makes sense that many of the sages interpret in our parsha the word yayin to mean “strong drink” and insist it does not merely mean wine. It is spiked wine made for intoxication, with the aim of unbridled tipsiness; or bisum in modern Hebrew.

Our rabbis and our own linguistic deduction shows us the same reasoning of the rabbis. We can see they are correct in their assertion that in our parasha’s use of the word v’shachar means “to the point of intoxication” is correct; that one should not run around shikur (Heb. drunk) all that time. We are to be cautious so that intoxication does not lead to a lack of reasoning and enviably our harm.

Yes our tradition allows us to embrace the ecstasy! But the Gemara gives us a warning to not get overwhelmed by it:

“Rava and Rabbi Zera

made their Purim feast

with one another.

They became drunk;

Rava arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zera.

The next day, he asked for mercy for him,

and his life was resuscitated.

The next year, he [Rava] said to him:

‘Let my Master come

and we shall make a Purim feast

with one another.’

He [Rabbi Zera] said to him:

‘Miracles don’t happen every single time.'”

רבה ורבי זירא |

עבדו סעודת פורים |

בהדי |

הדדי איבסום |

קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא |

למחר בעי רחמי |

ואחייה |

לשנה אמר ליה |

ניתי מר |

ונעביד סעודת פורים |

בהדי הדדי |

אמר ליה |

לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא |

Gemara, Megillah 7b

Some scholars contend this is just an allegory. Others who are more mystical take this completely literally. We see two rabbis celebrating Purim and are discharging their obligation to drink to intoxication and celebration. As they are drunk Rava takes out his shochet’s knife – a knife for kosher ritual slaughtering of animals for food – and slits the neck of his friends and companion Rabbi Zera. When Rava wakes up in the morning and realizes what he has done, as a learned man of medicine and as a tzaddik – a righteous and saintly man – he quickly acted. After praying for mercy for his companion, he was brought back to life.

As intense as this crisis is, in the end Rabbi Zera and all of us understand that he was intoxicated and not within his proper state of mind. He does not seem to be punished or held criminally accountable nor sued for negligence. And there is no bad blood between the rabbis even after this whole event. The love was still there, but that doesn’t mean he needed to go there again. Having adverted danger before, it was better to be on the safe side.

The Torah doesn’t demand that we avoid the drink, but it most certainly does insist that we avoid harmful situations; not relying on miracles or fate to rescue us.


Got Megillah?


Ready for Purim? Got Megillah? Purim is one of those celebrations where involvement is what really makes the event. One of the central mitzvot is engaging in the story of Megillat Esther. How are you celebrating the holiday; are you joining in the megillah reading at shul, playing in a Purim spiel, or are you just reading the megillah for yourself at home?

No matter how you enjEstheroy your megillah, our good friends at Open Siddur have a treat for you! Presenting the first freely licensed Seder Megillat Esther for Purim. This collaborative work brings together Hebrew and English text of Megillat Esther, the various blessings and instructions on how to do it yourself! Presented in simple and clean css-style formatting you can download the text today or read it on your mobile device!

One of the great things about the Open Siddur Project is the ability for a diverse group of people to share unique approaches to the liturgy and minhagim. Have a special tradition in your community that you would like to share? Or is there a special prayer that you really enjoy and would like others to appreciate? Open Siddur is a vibrant volunteer project that allows people to contribute their know-how in Jewish living and pair it with the free license contributions of others that are just as passionate about Jewish expression.

Every liturgical work I take on I contribute to the Open Siddur Project. I’m very happy to be part of the contributing team to this seder. Recently I was asked by someone if I was afraid that by contributing to a do-it-yourself approach of Judaism I was encouraging a cafeteria approach toward tradition; just picking and choosing. I’m gonna go on record and say absolutely not. If anything collaboration has made this meal into more of a pot-luck, it’s taken a meal and made a banquet with a lot more to enjoy!

Read It HERE!

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Blessings for the Megillat Esther


Download: Blessings for the Megillah Reading

We are quickly coming upon the Jewish holidays, we enter in the season of joy and celebration with the commemoration of the salvation of the Jewish people during the Persian empire at the time of Queen Esther; in the celebration of Purim. Here are the blessings according to the Nusach Arizal (Chabad) for the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther.

I find the story of Purim to be an especially moving in the modern era. Let’s think about it for a second.

Here is a story about someone that is anti-semetic, specifically because he hated one person in particular; Haman hated Mordechi, who was a Jew. But his hatred grew until his way of getting his satisfaction encompassed the slaughter of the entire Jewish people. So often in my experience I have seen that  hatred starts with a grudge against just one person, and as the hatred grows so does that blind spot until just about anything is justifiable.

The actions Haman took against the Jewish people was not an overt attack, it was an attack under the auspices of lawfulness and good citizenship. All his acts were wrapped in insincerity that cared for no one’s interest but that of Haman and his ego.

The Megillah at Matan

The Megillah at Matan (Photo credit: RahelSharon)

The reading of the megillah should really ring true for the modern reader and even for the non-religious. Quite notably, there is not a single mention to the Divine Name in the whole of Megillat Esther. It is not a book about waiting for Divine intervention. It’s not about long religious discussions. It’s about someone standing up and saying “your not just talking about some abstract idea, your talking about me because I’m a Jew.” Queen Esther stands up and makes it known that Jews are a part of the society and contribute on every level to the betterment of the world, including in the royal house itself with her presence.

In this way G-d’s salvation does not come through some supernatural act. Nor did it come by the hand of the the highly religious and pious. It does not mean that G-d is not there in our distress, nor that the religious are ineffective. It’s that G-d needed someone with special skills to be willing to  partner with Him and bring reason to the situation. Salvation came though Hashem giving the opportunity and the fortitude of spirit to one person to stand up, come out of the closet and be counted.

We all, no matter what our level of observance is, have a role in being the voice of godliness and humanity in this world. I believe this is the lesson of what it means to be a Jew, and why in this book we see the term yehudi (Jew) used for the first time in the scriptures.

May G-d comfort the mourners of Israel, and may His Nation remember for blessing the souls of the Fogel family; Udi (36) and Ruth (35), children Yoav (11), Elad (4), and baby Hadas (1 month old); and bind the wounds of those surviving children Tamar (12), Roi (8) and Yishai (2).


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