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.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Parshat Teruma

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat Teruma. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah:

The Keruvim

A Home for God

Living With God

The Ark of the Covenant

The Keruvim

The Keruvim (Cherubs) were two images that sat on the kapporet, the cover, on the Ark of the Covenant.

The Torah tells Moshe to: "The cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another" (Shemot 25:20).

Essentially, the keruvim faced each other with their wings held over their heads,

Surprisingly, when Shlomo built the Temple, he placed the keruvim slightly differently.

"He (Shlomo) set the cherubim within the inner house; and they stretched forth the wings of the cherubim, and the wing of the one touched the wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings in the midst of the house touched one another" (I Melachim 6:27).

Shlomo's Keruvim did not face each other – they stood side by side. One wing of each keruv touched a wall, while the second touched the wing of the other. They, therefore looked out of the Holy of Holies.

What is the significance of this difference?

I have heard in the name of Rabbi Menachem Liebtag that this difference epitomizes the difference between the Mishkan and the Temple and symbolizes a change in the relationship of God and the Jewish people.

When Israel built the Mishkan, it was a young nation, discovering its identity and beginning to figure out its relationship with God. It was insecure and needed God's reassurance and guidance. Hence, the Keruvim looked at each other, like a newly wed married couple – they only had eyes for each other. With the Mishkan and this relationship with God, Israel became a "holy nation" (See Shemot 19:6).

However, Israel had a second mission; to become a "kingdom of priests" (ibid). Israel could only begin fulfilling that mission once it was secure in its own identity. At the time of Shlomo, Israel became an empire. It had no wars and no troubles with its neighbors. On the contrary, it began to develop a healthy relationship with its surrounding nations and trade flourished.

It was a kind of messianic era. It was time for Israel to stop looking inwards and to begin looking outwards. It was time for a Temple.

Symbolic of this new stage in Israel's development, the keruvim no longer needed to look at each other. They still need each other; indeed, they held hands. However, they no longer needed to look at each other – they needed to start looking out for others and to begin their destiny of being a "kingdom of priests".

A Home for God

God told Moshe to seek donations from the children of Israel so that: "They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). God then proceeds to describe its design and its furniture.

When we examine description of the Mishkan, we are surprised that the home God demands for Himself was quite similar to a regular human home, only a little more grander.

To begin with, it was to have an Aron (cupboard), Shulchan (table), Menorah (lighting), mizbeach (furnace), and fire pans (cooking utensils). Furthermore, certain foods to be regularly brought to the Mishkan, whether, they were animal sacrifices, baked goods such as the showbread and matzot, wine and even spices.

Of course, as we are talking about God, all the furniture and fittings had to be made of the finest materials such as gold, accacia wood, linen etc. All the animals had to be perfect and unblemished and the flour had to be the finest quality available.

Moreover, all the attendents, had to wear special uniforms and had ritualised protocols as to where they could be and how to behave, just as any human king would have.

When Israel finally settles in the promised land and establishes a rich and mighty kingdom, David bemoans the fact that God's home was still portable: "'See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within curtains" (II Shmuel 7:2) and discusses building Him a palace (aka Temple). God declines the invitation at this juncture.

What's going on here? Was God homeless that He needed somewhere to live? Is He homeless now that the Temple has been destroyed.

If we look closely at the original passuk we quoted, we see that is not the case.

"They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). God does not say build Me a sanctuary that I will dwell "in it", but "among them". The purpose of the Mishkan is not for God's benefit but for Israel's. It is not a medium for God to live in, but a medium that enables us to get close to God.

It is impossible to see God for "no man can see Me and live" (ibid 33:20). Nevertheless, with relevant precautions, we can approach God. Israel could not climb Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah lest: "the Lord wreak destruction upon them" (ibid 19:22), but from behind the boundary they could be close to Him. The Mishkan was to act in the same manner. God would descend onto the Mishkan in a cloud (see 40:34) enabling His presence to exist among the people.

Without the Mishkan and Bet HaMikdash, it is not God who suffers the lack of an abode, but us who suffer the absence of His presence.

With the Mishkan, Israel had a place to go to where they could be close to God's presence.

Living With God

In accepting the Torah, Israel agreed to be a "holy nation" (Shemot 19:6). Following their acceptance, came a long list of rules that would help them attain that holiness. The attainment of holiness would then prepare the ground for Israel "to build Me a sanctuary, so that I can live among them" (ibid 25:7).

With God living among us much can be achieved. As well as being victorious in battle, God promises that "there will be no bereaved or barren woman in your land; I will fill the number of your days" (ibid 23:26). With God living among us, we would feel no suffering, no lack of security and would live long and fulfilling lives.

However, with it, comes many dangers.

To begin with there are uncomfortable situations. If someone becomes impure, they must leave the city until their purity is restored. If a person sins, they can be inflicted with tsaraat and again, be forced to live outside of the camp. The slightest deviation from holiness is incompatible with God's presence.

When God first approached Moshe, "Moshe turned his face aside, for he was afraid of looking at God" (ibid 3:6), Yaakov was surprised that he had survived an encounter with a celestial being, "I saw a celestial being face to face, and my soul was saved" (Bereshit 32:30). So too were Gideon and Manoach, when they encountered an angel (See Shoftim 6:32-33 & 13:22).

Indeed, after Israel's apostasy with the Golden Calf, God said that it would be best if He did not live among the people: "I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites…because I will not go up in your midst since you are a stiff necked people, lest I destroy you on the way (Shemot 33:2).

God says that He does not want to depart from Israel, but if He does not, He will end up destroying them, because Israel is stiff necked, and will surely sin again. It would better if He kept a distance from Israel and sent an intermediary in His place.

Israel mourned that fact and it seemed that God relented for the Mishkan was built and God's presence did reside among Israel. However, it came at a price.

The first to suffer were Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon's sons, "fire came out and consumed them" (VaYikra 10:2). Others soon followed, the Mitonenim (Bemidbar 11:1), the 250 followers of Korach (ibid 16:35), the rebels that came in their wake (ibid 17:11) and the apostates of Baal Peor (ibid 25:9).

Incidents continued in the Land of Israel. First the Philistines suffered when they captured the Ark of the Covenant, and then the people of Bet Shemesh, when it was returned (see I Shmuel Ch. 6). Indeed, even David's first attempt to bring it to Jerusalem was accompanied with death (II Shmuel 6:6).

Jews pray regularly for God's house to be rebuilt in Jerusalem. However, before we do that, we must first ensure that we are ready. Otherwise, the consequences will be fatal.

The Ark of the Covenant

"They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.You shall overlay it with pure gold; from inside and from outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make upon it a golden crown all around" (Shemot 25:10-11).

The Ark of the Covenant was the first item in the Mishkn that God commanded Isael to make. That is because it was the most important and holiest part of the Mishkan.

It was only piece of furniture that was in the Holy of the Holies, the Mishkan's inner sanctum, and it was the place from which: "I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark" (ibid 22).

Amazingly enough, this holiest of items had on it two images, two golden cherubs "wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another" (ibid 20), in total violation of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them" (ibid 20:4-5).

How was it possible that Israel's holiest object contained two images?

Interestingly enough, the Ark and the cherubs on it, were never meant to be seen. As we noted earlier, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies. No one was ever allowed in there, save the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, on Yom Kippur. Yet even then, he never actually saw the Ark because before he went it "he shall place the incense upon the fire, before the Lord, so that the cloud of the incense shall envelope the ark cover that is over the [tablets of] Testimony, so that he shall not die" (VaYikra 16:13). The smoke from the incense was to envelop the Ark before, the Kohen Gadol went in, so he never actually aw it.

Even when the people traveled it was never seen, because: "Aaron and his sons shall come and take down the dividing screen; with it, they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony" (Bemidbar 4:5). Therefore, the Ark was always covered with the parochet when it was not in the Holy of Holies.

Furthermore, while the Ark may have been used to lead in Israel in battle in Israel's infancy, it is clear from the Sefer Shmuel, when Israel decided to bring the Ark to battle, and the Philistines shouted in woe: "was nothing like this yesterday and before yesterday" (1 Shmuel 4:7) that this practice soon stopped.

Even more interesting is the fact that despite the Ark being the most important item, it did not feature at all during the Second Temple yet the Temple functioned well without it. Indeed, it is now The Lost Ark, and it is unlikely that it will ever be re-discovered.

Therefore, it is possible to understand the Ark and its cherubs as a concession to ancient Israel's evolution from idolatry to monotheism. The young nation, brought up on Egypt's plethora of gods, found the concept of an imageless God an impossible concept to comprehend. In the circumstances, they were given an image, but they could never see it. Overtime, the Ark itself became lost; as Israel developed an no longer even needed a hidden image.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Parshat Mishpatim

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat Mishpatim. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah

The New Covenant

The Law

The Kid and the Mother's Milk

Slavery and the Law

The New Covenant

I have been approached on numerous occasions by Christian missionaries, telling me that if I was a sincere Jew who really believed in the Bible, I had no choice but to adopt Christianity, because it was a fulfillment of Judaism.

One of the sources they would bring to my attention is from Sefer Yirmiyahu:

"I will make a new covenant (
ברית חדשה) with the house of Israel…; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant…But this is the covenant…I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: 'Know the Lord'; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them." (Yirmiyahu 31:30-33)

I was able to show the missionaries the next pesukim which basically say that God will never reject Israel (see ibid 34-35), so if they believed the previous pesukim they should also believe these ones. Therefore, rather than me converting to Christianity, they should be converting to Judaism!!

Nevertheless, how do we explain the first set of pesukim that basically state that because Israel rejected the old covenant, God will make a new one, one inscribed on their hearts? Is the "old" Torah, given when we left Egypt, no longer valid?

The answer to this question can be found in this week's parsha. As part of the giving of the Torah, Moshe performs an elaborate ceremony, building altars, offering sacrifices and sprinkling blood over the altars and the people. "Moshe wrote all the words of the Lord and all the people answered in unison saying, 'All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do'…and he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, 'All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear'" (Shemot 24:4-7).

This ceremony ratifies Israel's acceptance of the Torah. Moshe first writes the terms of the agreement and Israel accepted it. Moshe then performs the ceremony, signifying the union between God and Israel. Finally, Moshe reads the agreement, now called "the book of the covenant" and the people ratify it once more.

What is "the book of the covenant"?

I would like to suggest that this "book of the covenant" is the "old" covenant, made "on the day…I took them…out of Egypt". It describes God's commitment to Israel, that He chooses them and promises them to be His people. It then describes Israel's commitment to be kingdom of priests and a holy nation and to keep the Torah. Moshe read it to the people and they accepted it.

Israel was unfaithful to it. This covenant therefore, needs to be renewed. God promises that He will renew the covenant. This time, however, it will not be written on stone; it will be written on Israel's hearts. It will be no longer necessary to teach about God. His existence will be so obvious, that all will know the Lord, from the greatest to the smallest.

The Torah itself will never be abrogated, but our commitment to it will be renewed.

The Law

God gave Israel the Torah in last week's parsha. This week, He proceeds to give Moshe a long list of laws. They include laws concerning the treatment of slaves, how to resolve conflicts between people and on returning lost animals of adversaries.

These laws appear to be pretty mundane compared to what Israel had just experienced. They stood at Sinai and G0d revealed Himself to them. He gave them the 10 Commandments and they experienced unprecedented events. Israel understood that there were to become a "kingdom of priests and a holy people".

Surely the next step for Israel should have been to receive guidelines on how to achieve an even closer communion with God, how to concentrate on their spiritual sides to attain even greater holiness and how to sanctify their very existence.

Yet instead, God gives them a series of laws about petty human relationships, which have little or no religious content to them. These laws could have been, and probably were, similar to the laws of other societies.

Nevertheless, this is precisely the Torah's point. Communion with God and achieving holiness is not to be attained through seclusion in the Bet Midrash, lengthy meditation in our prayers or through the punctilious observation of rituals. On the contrary, it can only be attained through complete interaction with society; through our day to day relationships.

The Torah wants Israel to create a society that is a: "kingdom of priests and a holy nation". However, as with any human interaction, conflict will occur. The Torah wants us to resolve the conflicts fairly and justly, to work towards social justice at all levels of society.

It can be no coincidence that the laws begin with our duties towards slaves. Israel themselves, had just been freed from "the house of bondage" and fully understood the unjust lot of the slave. The lowest echelon of society had to be treated with justice and to be given dignity and respect.

So too, when people argued. Their conflict needs to be resolved honestly by a principled judge. We even have duties to the animals of people we dislike, never mind the stranger, widow and orphan.

The roadmap to holiness is not in exclusion from society, but in our inclusion in our relationships with others. It is only when we learn to treat our fellow man, the way we would like to be treated, i.e. with honesty and respect, that we will have accomplished our mission at Sinai and become a true kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The Kid and the Mother's Milk

Following on from the Ten Commandments of last week's parsha, this week's parsha sees the introduction of many laws.

They include: "You shall not cook a kid (goat) in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19).

From this the Rabbi's teach us that we may not mix milk and meaty foods. We must ask the question as to ho the Rabbis made this jump. The passuk is talking specifically about goats. While we might possibly understand that it could be referring to all animals, how do they get from that to all milk?

Avraham Ibn Ezra notes that has two other mitzvot, that are similar to the mitzvah we just saw:

a) You shall not slaughter an ox or sheep, it and its offspring on the same day. (VaYikra 22:28)

b) If you come across a bird's nest on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] chicken or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the chicks or upon the eggs, you shall not take the young in front of the mother (Devarim 22:6-7)

Note that each case is slightly different than the other. In one case the mother and offspring are being killed on the same day, in another the offspring are being taken in front of the mother, while in our case, the mother's milk, a symbol of her fertility, is being used to marinate her offspring.

The main point is that each case involves an action that is permitted. It is permitted to slaughter a young calf. It is also permitted to slaughter the mother (on a different day). It is also permitted to take young chicks or eggs and it is also permitted to cook a young kid goat.

However, all three of these mitzvot draw their inspiration from a single idea: killing a mother and its children at the same time, taking young chicks in the sight of the mother or boiling a kid in its mother's milk, all reflects a lack of sensitivity to animal life. Therefore, when the Torah forbade the mixing of milk together, it used an example that would teach us sensitivity to animals and their feelings.

Now that we have examined why the Torah uses an example of an animal in its mother's milk, we must understand why it highlights goats and not other animals.

The answer to this lies in Mishlei (Proverbs). There the scribe sepks of a time when Israel will have abundance. He states: "enough goat milk for your food, for the food of your household, and sustenance for your maidens" (Mishlei 27:27).

It appears that the staple milk that people drank in biblical times was goat's milk, not cow's milk. Therefore, the Torah uses an example that ancient Israel could relate to.
Nevertheless, the Rabbis explain that this example was applicable to all types of meats and milk.

Therefore, it we can now understand how "You shall not cook a kid (goat) in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19), applies to all animals and all types of milk.

Slavery and the Law

In last week's parsha God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. This week's parsha then lists a more detailed description of God's law. It begins with:

"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge " (Shemot 21:2).

This is incredible. The very first law is about slavery. However, if we look carefully, it's not about actually the laws of slavery, but about freeing slaves. In fact, ver little is stated about the actual treatment and buying and selling of slaves. The very first law is about freeing slaves. It then goes on: "But if the slave says, "I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free" (ibid 5) – the slave does not want to go free!!

The next law is about the female slave: "If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not go free as the slaves go free" (ibid 7). The female slave does not go free. Why? The master or his son must marry her and provide her with "sustenance, her clothing, and her marital relations" (ibid 10). If he refuses to provide her this, then: she shall go free" (ibid 11).

The next law then talks about murder.

So as we can see, the Torah is not really talking to us about the laws of slavery. In fact, it is not really talking to us about laws at all. It is talking to us about a principle. People should not be enslaved, they should be free. The natural state of a person is to be free and not beholden to others.

Interestingly, this exactly how the Ten Commandments begin: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (ibid 20:2). God's first act for Israel was to free them from slavery. Their first act, therefore, should be to free slaves.

The Torah, therefore, while permitting slavery, clearly wants it abolished, for the sanctity of humanity is primary to all laws, as is implied by the fact that the serious punishment for murder and manslaughter immediately follow.