Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Parshat VaYikra

Moshe's Calling

Sefer VaYikra begins with God calling Moshe into the Ohel Moed:

"He called to Moshe, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:" (VaYikra 1:1).

However, the Torah's standard formula for the introduction of a new subject is:

"The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying".

In order to understand this instance of Moshe needing an invitation from God, we need to examine the other instances when God called upon Moshe:

1. At the Burning Bush:

"The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, "Moshe, Moshe!" ... "Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, for the land upon which you are standing is holy" (Shemot 3:4-5).

2. Three times at Maamad Har Sinai:

"Moshe ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying:" (ibid 19:3).

"The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord called Moshe to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended" (ibid 20).

"The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moshe on the seventh day from within the cloud" (ibid 24:16).

The difference between the Burning Bush and the Mount Sinai episodes, is that at the Burning Bush, Moshe wanted to approach and God called upon him not to. While at Mount Sinai, Moshe did not approach God, so God called upon him in order to approach.

Why did God stop Moshe from approaching Him at the Burning Bush and why did Moshe not automatically approach God at Mount Sinai?

Solving this problem will help us understand why Moshe was called in this week's parsha.

At the burning Bush, God actually tells Moshe why he could not approach: "...the land upon which you are standing is holy". Moshe was not in a fitting state to have an extremely close encounter with God. Unprepared close encounters with God leads to death: "... for no one can see me and live" (Shemot 33:20).

Indeed, Yaakov was surprised that he survived his encounter with the celestial being (Bereshit 32:20) as were Gidon (Shoftim 6: 22-23) and Manoach (ibid 13:22).

At Mount Sinai, God's glory was resting in a cloud at the peak of the mountain. Moshe could not approach Him so God needed to call upon him. Once invited, Moshe could enter the cloud and have communion with God.

So too, in the this week's parsha. As the Rashbam explains (on Vayikra 1:1), Parshat VaYikra is an immediate continuation of Sefer Shemot. Thre, the Mishkan had just been completed and God's presence was resting on it. Therefore, "Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:35).

So, "He called to Moshe" to give him permission to enter the Ohel Moed.

Incidentally, the kohanim at the consecration of the first Temple were unfortunately excluded from this communion: "It came to pass, when the priests had come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord" (I Melachim 8:10-11).

The Kohanim did not receive the calling and remained outside.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Parshat VaYakhel-Pikudei

The Builders of the Mishkan

God appointed two men to supervise the building of the Mishkan:

"The Lord has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehuda...and Oholiav, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan" (Shemot 35:30-34).

Both these names and the callings of these people have always fascinated me. I believe that their names and abilities are connected to the dual purpose of the Mishkan.

The Torah gives Mishkan two names: The Mishkan (Dwelling Place) and the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). Each name represents a different aspect of the Mishkan: Mishkan - the place where God's spirit rests and lives amongst Israel; and Ohel Moed - the place where God meets with Moshe to proclaim His teachings.

Depending on the context, the Torah uses the relevant name. It generally does not use both names together, apart from in this week's parsha:

"All the work of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting was completed; the children of Israel had done [it]; according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so they had done" (ibid 39:32).

In completing the Mishkan, the children of Israel had created a structure that served a dual purpose: To protect Israel (Mishkan) and to bring God to the world (Ohel Moed).

These ideas are echoed in the names of the master craftsmen:

Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur - The image of God, from light, from emptiness.

This name represents Creation and God proclaimimg His word when previously it had not been heard.

Bezalel would therefore, represent the name and purpose of Ohel Moed.

Oholiav ben Ahisamach -The Tent is my Father (i.e. "Protection"), my Brother is my Support.

This name represents the family of Israel and the presence of God dwelling in the Mishkan.

Therefore, Oholiav would represent the name and purpose of Mishkan.

Note also the tribes of both craftsmen. Bezalel is from Yehuda and Oholiav is from Dan. Yehuda means "thanks" or "graciousness" while Dan is "justice".

Perhaps this is hinting at God's traits of mercy and justice, the middot by which He runs the Universe, and thus indicates another aspect of the Mishkan/Ohel Moed in its totality.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Parshat Ki Tissa

Blood Money

This week's parsha begins with a very strange rule:

"When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord a ransom (כֹּפֶר) for his soul when they are counted; so that there will be no plague among them when they are counted" Shemot 30:12. This is a strange concept. To begin with, why should a person have to pay a ransom just because he is being counted? Why does he need ransoming, what is he being held accountable for? Secondly, why should a plague result from the ransom not being paid? To answer this question, we will look at the word כֹּפֶר (ransom) by looking at its other appearances in the Torah.

In this form, it appears only a further three times in the Torah. Each case involves a homicide: 1. The owner of a habitually goring bull (שור מועד) that has killed a person must pay a ransom (כֹּפֶר) in order to redeem his own life. “Insofar as ransom (כֹּפֶר) shall be levied upon him, he shall give the redemption of his soul according to all that is levied upon him" Ibid 21:30.

The owner of the bull really deserves to forfeit his life because of the life that his bull had taken. He knew his bull was dangerous, but did not take enough precautions. Nevertheless, the Torah allows him to ransom his life with a cash payment. 2. On the other hand, a murderer cannot save his life by paying the ransom: “You shall not accept ransom (כֹּפֶר) for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, for he shall be put be put to death” (Bemidbar 35:31).

On no account can a murderer forfeit execution by paying a ransom.
3. Neither can an accidental killer save himself from exile by paying a ransom: “You shall not accept ransom (כֹּפֶר) for one who has fled to his city of refuge, to allow him to return to live in the Land” (ibid 32).

In each of these cases, a ransom can or cannot be paid in lieu of the lost life of another.

It seems that it was common practice for people who had caused the death of another to forfeit execution or punishment by paying blood money, a ransom. The Torah forbids this procedure in the case of homicide, but permits it in the case of habitually goring bull.
Now let's return to this week's parsha.

The standard motive for a census was to prepare men for battle. Soldiers in combat are expected to kill. The Torah insists that as part of their conscription, the soldiers must pay a ransom for those they are destined to slay. The soldier enrolling for war must recognize that the taking of life, even that of an enemy in battle, is something that must never come easy. For their lives, he must gain atonement. He does it by paying the ransom. Failure to pay the ransom is equivalent to devaluing human life and would lead to God's wrath being vented against them.

Parshat Tetsaveh
The Mizbeach HaKetoret

Towards the end of the Parsha, G-d completes His instructions to build the Mishkan. He summarizes:

"There I will arrange meetings with the children of Israel, and it will be sanctified by My glory. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will sanctify Aaron and his sons to serve Me. I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel and I will be their G-d. They will know that I, the Lord, am their G-d, Who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I may dwell in their midst; I am the Lord, their G-d." Shemot 29:43-46

Immediately after this summary, G-d instructs Moshe to build the Mizebeach HaKetoret.
"You shall make an altar for bringing incense up in smoke; you shall make it out of acacia wood" (Shemot 30:1).
This altar appears an appendix, as if it had been forgotten and suddenly remembered. Why? As the Ramban points out: “it is one of the inner sanctum fittings and should have been mentioned together with the Shulchan and the Menorah, which is where it was located” (Ramban on 30:1). Indeed, it is constructed together with the Mizbeach Haolah, immediately after the Menorah (See Shemot 37:25-29). So why does it appear after everything has already been said and done?

The Sephorno (on 30:1) explains that the Mizbeach HaKetoret was not an integral part of the Mishkan. The purpose of the Mishkan was so that G-d’s presence would rest amongst Israel. All its fixtures were created for that precise purpose, as the Torah wrote:

"I will dwell in their midst according to all that I show you, the design of the Mishkan and the design of all its fittings; and so shall you do…" Shemot 25:8-9

However, this is not why the Altar of Incense was built; this is not its rationale. It served a different purpose; needed for an already existing Temple.
Once G-d’s glory was already resting in the Mishkan, it was necessary for Israel to bring Him incense.

Israel prepared for G-d a palace, with glorious furnishings, elegantly outfitted servants and a specific order of the day. They created a home worthy of G-d to rest his presence. Once G-d’s glory was resting upon Israel, it was then necessary to approach to Him. But how can you approach God, "no one can see me and live" (ibid 33:20)?
According the Ramban, the Ketoret allows us to approach God. It creates a smokescreen so that we cannot see Him, but allows us to be close to Him.
It is not enough for us to construct an elegant house of worship, with its honorary officers and its daily services. We must be able to approach God.