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, March 26, 2010

Parshat Tzav

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat Tzav:

  • The Korban Todah and Chametz
  • Understanding Karet
  • More on Sacrifices and Offerings
  • Eating the Blood

The Korban Todah and Chametz

Last week we saw that it was forbidden to burn chametz on the altar (VaYikra 2:11). Indeed, Chametz cannot be brought with any of the korbanot, aside from two: The Shtei Halechem (ibid 23:17) and the Korban Todah, the thanksgiving sacrifice (ibid 7:13), which is in this week's parsha.

Aside from the Chametz aspect, the Korban Todah and the Korban Pesach are very similar sacrifices:

  • They are the only korbanot that are brought with bread/matzah (ibid and Shemot 12:8).
  • They are the only korbanot that must be eaten by the morning after their sacrifices (VaYikra 7:15 & Shemot 12:10).
  • Both korbanot can be eaten by non-kohanim.

Indeed, these korbanot are very similar in their essence. The Chizkuni explains the reason that the Korban Todah must be consumed by the morning. It is impossible for one person to eat an entire animal by himself. This law forces the person to invite a large group of people to join him in eating the Korban Todah. He is therefore, required to supply them with bread in order to make a seudat mitzvah. During the course of this meal they would naturally discuss the reason why the person brought this thanksgiving sacrifice. Indeed, the person would explain "Know that the Lord He is God; it is He that has made us" (Tehillim 100 – Mizmor LeTodah, which is not recited on Passover, because it could not be sacrificed then because of the chametz).

Thereby, a large group of people would be made aware of the miracle that God had done for this man.

This is the essence of the Korban Pesach. A large group of people must sit together to enjoy the meal and they have the duty to discuss the Exodus from Egypt, the miracle that God performed for the entire Jewish people, and the reason why the Korban Pessach is being brought. This is the mitzvah of "Maggid" and Jews today fulfill this mitzvah by reciting the Hagadah on Seder Night, the first night of Pessach.

It turns out that the Korban Pessach is a national Korban Todah and hence their similarities.

Of course, while a regular Korban Todah needed chametz bread, this was not possible for the Korban Pessach, as chametz is forbidden for the whole of Passover.

Understanding Karet

This week's parsha brings to our attention an interesting punishment:

"A person who eats the flesh of a peace offering of the Lord, while his uncleanness is upon him, that soul shall be cut off from its people" (VaYikra 7:20).

This punishment of one's "soul being cut off from its people" (
וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ), called "Karet", also applies to males who are not circumcised (Bereshit 17:14), someone who eats chametz on Pesach (Shemot 12:15, 19), someone who breaks Shabbat (ibid 31:14), someone who does any of the actions described in VaYikra Chapter 18 (see passuk 29) and for a host of other sins.

The commentaries have trouble understanding what "Karet" actually entails. Most commentators understand it as a form of heavenly punishment despite the fact that Bamidbar 15:31 implies that it is to be applied by humans. Some say that Karet is childlessness. This would fit in with the concept of "being cut off from the people", if the sinner is young and has no children. Others understand it as death before the age of 50 or between the ages of 50 and 60. In these cases it is difficult to understand what makes this death: "cut off from the people".

We can perhaps suggest two alternatives by looking at the antonym of this expression. It appears at the deaths of Avraham, Yitschak, Yishmael, Aharon and Moshe. We will examine the expression with Avraham:

"Avraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, andhe was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah" (Bereshit 25:8-9).

Now, we must understand what "gathered to his people" (
וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו) means.

Note how the "gathering to his people" occurred after death but before burial. There are two ways to understand this.

Firstly, in ancient Israel, there were two stages in burying a person. First the body was buried. A year later, the grave was re-opened and the bones were then gathered and buried in a family tomb. Therefore, if the "gathering to his people" means the gathering of the bones and the re-internment in a family tomb, then we can understand "Karet" as a procedure that would mean that the sinner's bones were not re-interred in the family tomb - effectively he is cut off from his people.

However, it is difficult to apply this explanation to the deaths of Aharon and Moshe as their bones were not re-interred in the family tomb.

Other commentators suggest that this expression is a reference to the world to come. The Tenach does not talk about life after death, but it is possible that this expression hints at it. Therefore, if "being gathered unto one's people" implies being granted a place in the world to come, then "being cut off from one's people" means being denied a place in the world to come.

More on Sacrifices and Offerings

This week's parsha is pretty similar to last week's. Not only do they discuss how the sacrifices, they discuss exactly the same sacrifices! Whether they be burnt offerings, sin offerings or peace offerings, all are repeated in this week's parsha.


The answer lies in the second passuk of each parsha.

VaYikra begins with: "When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord…" (VaYikra 1:2).

While Tzav begins with: "Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering…" (ibid 6:2).

The essential difference between these two parshiyot are the words "when" and "command".

Parshat VaYikra begins with the word "When". Essentially, no obligation is placed on the individual to bring a sacrifice. Yet, when a person feels the urge to bring a korban, he has a list of alternatives to choose from.

However, Tzav begins with "command". If no one feels the urge to bring korbanot to God, the priests still have an obligation to bring them.

Once again, we are faced with the need to worship God from inner desire and the ritual obligations of worship that are incumbent on all Jews.

That is the way the world is. There are moments when we eel the inner motive to do what is right. However, often we neglect our duties and obligations, necessitating rules and ceremonies to regulate us to ensure that we do what is right.

The challenge for the Jew is to take the extremes of these two parshiyot and to synthesize our essence to make our duties and obligations into inner felt desires.

Eating the Blood

This week's parsha reminds us that we may not eat blood: "Any person who eats any blood, soul shall be cut off from its people" (VaYikra 7:27).

Why is it wrong to eat blood?

To help answer this question, we must look at the first time that the Torah forbids it; after the Deluge: "Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything. But, flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat" (Bereshit 9:3-4).

The Torah considers blood to be "flesh with its soul". It is not entirely clear what this concept actually means, nevertheless, it seems that blood is more than just a liquid, it is the lifeblood, life itself.

Nevertheless, this should not change why it should be forbidden to eat blood. If one can eat an animal i.e., a living creature, than why can one not eat the blood?

At creation, humanity was only permitted to eat vegetation: "God said, 'Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food'" (ibid 1:29).

Yet, after the Flood, God permitted them to eat meat. Many commentaries explain that this new rule was in concession to humanity's aggressive nature. Allowing people to kill animals for food would curve their nature from being aggressive to fellow humans.

Nonetheless, it was still forbidden for humanity to eat the blood. Eating blood would be one step too far. Rather than releasing the aggression, thereby protecting humanity, eating blood, i.e. eating the soul, would lead Man to be callous about life. It would lead to further cruelty to others. And so it remains off limits.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Parshat VaYikra

There are four Sedra Shorts in Parshat VaYikra

  • Moshe's Calling
  • Korbanot, Honey and Chametz
  • Sacrifice and Offering
  • The Pleasant Fragrance

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.

Korbanot, Honey and Chametz

The Torah gives long, detailed explanations as to the items that can be offered as korbanot, in this week's parsha. They include certain animals and foods. However, the Torah adds that: "No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made out of chametz. For you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any chametz or any honey, as a fire offering to the Lord" (VaYikra 2:11).

The Torah does not explain why, but neither chametz nor honey (probably the nectar that comes from dates and figs, as opposed to that of bees) can bed offered up as a korban to God.

We can only theorize as to why these foodstuffs were forbidden in the Temple. A popular explanation as to why chametz cannot be offered includes the idea that chametz is grain that has risen, i.e. puffed up, showing evidence of pride. This would counter the purpose of a korban, whose essence is to show humility before God.

Another idea is that unleavened grain, just like salt, which is a requirement of every offering, never decays and becomes moldy. This would symbolize God's covenant with Israel; it is eternal and will never decay.

It is far more difficult to understand why honey was forbidden as an offering to God. Rambam suggests that honey was a main ingredient used in the pagan worship of gods, and was therefore excluded from Israel's rituals. While modern scholarship suggests that Rambam was correct, it does not explain why wine and other foods also used in pagan worship, were permitted.

Nevertheless, we have a biblical source which shows that this stricture was upheld.

While castigating the inhabitants of Shechem who had anointed Avimlech as king, enabling him to murder his seventy brothers, Yotam, the only surviving brother, tells a story predicting their doom (see Shoftim Ch. 9). The story tells of the trees seeking a king. They approach, the olive, the vine and the fig trees. All three reject the position. The olive tree states: "Should I leave my fatness, seeing that by me they honor God and man" (ibid 9), showing that that olives (or the oil produced from it) were used in the worship of God. The vine states: "Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man" (ibid 13), showing that it was also used in worship. However, the fig tree states: "Should I leave my sweetness and my good fruitage" (ibid 11). It does not mention God, showing Israel, in this regard at least, did not copy its pagan neighbors and use honey in the worship of God.

Sacrifice and Offering

The Rabbis call Sefer Vayikra the Laws of Priests. Indeed, most of Sefer VaYikra is a priestly book, dealing with the subject attaining holiness, purifying impurities and the cleansing of sin. To be sure, Sefer VaYikra lists ritual upon ritual, which are mostly animal sacrifices, on how Israel can attain this level of holiness.

The modern world, including myself, finds it difficult to understand how the sacrificing of animals, the sprinkling of their blood and the smoldering of their ashes could possibly accomplish these goals.

We will try to understand this another time.

For now, let's try to understand the concept of the korbannot. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that we normally use two words to translate korban: Sacrifice and Offering.

These words are antonyms.

A sacrifice is done unwillingly, when one has no choice, while an offering is given willingly, with an open heart. There actually two types of sacrifices, some are requirements, sacrifices; while others are voluntary, offerings.

Both types of kobanot, nevertheless, have the same purpose, that is, to bring the sacrificer / offerer, closer to God.

Indeed, as Rabbi Hirsch explains that is the actual meaning of the words: korban. It comes from the Hebrew root, krv (
קרב), which means: to come close.

We aim to come closer to God. Judaism is an organized religion that can help us to achieve that goal. Its rituals are considered practices to help us achieve that. The problem is that the rituals become routine and we therefore, sometime miss the point.

Our challenge is to turn our obligations into offerings.

Through uniting our sacrifices and our offerings we create a korban and turn our rituals into meaningful ceremonies that can bring us closer to God.

The Pleasant Fragrance

This week's parsha is all about the korbanot, sacrifices and offerings brought by Israel for various occasions.

Thee concept seems strange to the modern person. God has a house. His house is similar to a human house with a table, lights, cupboard, wash basin, altar (aka oven) and implements.

And then it seems that God is being fed. He is given an offering. It is put on the altar and then it vanishes in smoke, with the smoke going up to heaven, as if God us dining on the animal. Sometimes, He even shares the meal with others.

The Torah then writes: "It is a burnt offering, a fire offering, a pleasing fragrance to the Lord: (VaYikra 1:17).

This phrase implies that God has literally enjoyed the offering. Even though many primitive people understood the concept in this manner, we of course, understand that all these ideas are anthropomorphic, the description of God in human terms, so that we can understand it.

This was not the first time, however, that God found a koban to be a "pleasing fragrance." After the flood, Noach also made sacrifice to God: "Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself" (Bereshit 8:20-21).

From this episode, we learn that the sacrifice was not to provide food for God. How?

In the parallel Gilgamesh epic, once the gods brought the flood to the world, they realized that they had made a grave mistake, for they no longer had any food or drink and were starving. Indeed, when the hero of the flood makes a sacrifice, he provides them with wine as well, and all the gods crowded around like flies into to get some food.

However, Noach does not provide any drink, for God was not thirsty, and neither does God crowd around the sacrifice, for He was not hungry. He just finds the odor pleasing. This, therefore means that He accepted the offering.

This idea can also be proved from another text in Sefer VaYikra. There God threatens Israel with numerous admonitions should they be unfaithful. The passuk writes: "I will lay your cities waste and make your holy places desolate, and I will not smell of your pleasant fragrances" (VaYikra 26:31).

There God does not seem to be worried about going hungry. He is simply that He will not smell the pleasant aroma, i.e. He will reject the offering.

Therefore, the term "smelling" the pleasant aroma, is merely a term that means, accepting the sacrifice, that the person offering the sacrifice has been accepted.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Parshat VaYakhel-Pikudei

There are five Sedra Shorts for Parshat VaYakhel-Pikudei

  • The Mishkan's Dual Purpose
  • The People's Mishkan
  • The Cost of the Mishkan
  • Raising the Cash
  • The Mishkan Again

The Mishkan's Dual Purpose

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.

The People's Mishkan

In this week's parsha, Israel begins building the Mishkan.

It begins with a call for donations and then proceeds with its construction.

While two people, Bezalel and Oholiav, with exceptional artistic and creative skills were selected to oversee the Mishkan's construction, it is clear that the whole nation felt a aprt of it and that it was not the reserve of the elite.

To begin with the call goes out to everybody:

"Moshe called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble" (Shemot 35:1).

Usually the Torah write: Moshe spoke to the children of Israel". However, in this case, everyone was to be present. Indeed, the Hebrew word: "VaYakhel" (he gathered) reminds us of the mitzvah of "hakhel" the gathering of all Israel every seven years.

Moshe asks for the people to be generous: "'Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it" (ibid 5), but the extent of the people's munificence surprises him: "The people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the Lord had commanded to do" (ibid 36:5).

Rashi observes that the community elite, the Nesi'im, are subtly criticized by the Torah for being the last people to donate, as they believed that they would have to complete the people's shortfall (see Rashi on ibid 35"27 where the Hebrew word nesi'sm is spelt without the Hebrew letter "yod"

Even the act of construction was open to the entire people. Again Rashi comments that the two supervisors came from the tribes Yehuda, a leading tribe, and Dan, a "minor" tribe. This was to indicate that all levels of Israel's society should be involved in the construction.

Furthermore, the construction was even open to women: "Every wise hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought spun material: blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen. All the women whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom, spun the goat hair" (ibid 35 25-26).

Additionally, the labor was not only done by the artists: "He made the laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, of the mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting" (ibid 38:8).

Who were these women "that did service". The term used to describe their work is "lisvo tseva" (
לצבוא צבא). This term is used twice more in the Torah (Bemidbar 38:4 and 8:24).

In both instances, it refers to the menial tasks performed by the Levites in the Mishkan.

It seems that the women referred to here (and in I Shmuel 2:22), were menial laborers who worked in the Mishkan. Even women at the bottom of the occupational and special scale were involved in the building of the Mishkan.

God's house is not to be the preserve of the wealthy, but a sanctuary so that all Israel knows that God dwells amongst them.

The Cost of the Mishkan

"All the gold that had been used for the work in all the work of the Holy the gold of the waving was twenty nine talents, seven hundred and thirty shekels, according to the holy shekel" (Shemot 38:24).

In one of favorite all time comments, Chief Rabbi Hertz estimates that the Mishkan cost £170,000 – today one would have trouble finding accommodation in any western capital with that sum.

The Sephorno points out the beauty of the Mishkan was diminished in relation to the First Temple, which was even further diminished by Herod's Temple.

Indeed, we know that chef wood used to make the Mishkan was acacia wood, while Solomon's Temple was crafted with Lebanon's finest cedar wood. Those who have visited the Negev desert, will note that the acacia tree is not an exceptionally fine tree. Nevertheless, that is what ancient Israel had available, so that as what they used.

Nonetheless, what the Mishkan lacked in wealth in splendor, it had spirituality and God's presence in abundance.

"For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night" (ibid 40:38). God's presence never left the Mishkan; His glory filled the Mishkan throughout.

This is in contradistinction to Solomon's Temple that fell into disrepair in Hezekiah's day and needed to be repaired and Herod's Temple that lacked the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark) and other important vessels.

Furthermore, while the Temples were both destroyed, the Mishkan never was.

What was it that made the Mishkan unique?

The answer lies in this week's parsha:

"These are the numbers of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, which were counted at Moses' command (ibid 38:21)

"they made … the Lord had commanded Moshe" (ibid 39:1 + a further 9 times).

"Now they brought the Mishkan to Moshe…Moses saw the entire work, and lo! they had done it-as the Lord had commanded, so had they done. So Moses blessed them" (ibid 33-43).

There was complete transparency in everything that Moshe did. All the gold, silver, metals and other items were accounted for. All the work was inspected and checked to see that it was done correctly and lo and behold, everything was done to the letter according to the word of God.
Moshe did not hide any of riches that were collected nor did he feel that he did not need to account to the people for all the resources they spent.

Moshe understood that he was dealing with public money. Therefore, he had a duty to ensure that all of it was used correctly, and that the workers had abused their position. He therefore, made an inventory of every item used.

Raising the Cash

The children of Israel begin and complete the building of the Mishakan in this week's parsha.

However, before they built it, they needed the raw materials that would become the Mishkan. Therefore at the outset, Moshe makes a call for donations: "Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it" (Shemot 35:5).

The people were so generous that Moshe was told that "the people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the Lord had commanded to do" (ibid 36:5) and so Moshe calls them to stop bringing things.

This type of donation is in contradistinction to what the Torah had called for in last week's parsha: "everyone who goes through the counting shall give half a shekel…The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel (ibid 30:13-13).

In our parsha each person could give how much or how little they wanted to do, while in the previous parsha, there was no choice; each person was required to give the same amount.

We find a similar thing in the next two parshiyot. Sefer VaYikra begins by describing the different sacrifices a person could bring should they feel the urge to sacrifice – the whole parsha is described in a voluntary manner. While the following parsha, Tzav, describes obligatory sacrifices.

What is the Torah trying to teach by describing voluntary and obligatory features in the same aspects of worship?

These two features recognize the reality of the human spirit. There are times when we feel deep religious conviction and do not need any prompting in our worship or in our desire to give, while at other times we need prompting and direction, as we do not always feel the urge.

The same rules regulate our prayers. Jews are required to pray three times a day, whether or not they feel the urge to pray. At the same time one can pray at any time of any day for any reason.

We recognize that we need regulation in our lives. Our spiritual yearnings cause us to codify our religion, and yet that codification automatically stunts our desire and often even removes the spiritual urge.

The challenge is to find the medium, to somehow bring spirituality into our regulations, to treat our obligatory duties as if they were voluntary.

The Mishkan Again

We spent two weeks in Teruma and Tetzaveh, learning about the Mishkan. There the Torah discussed in detail, the precise measurements of its items.

This week we read another two parshiyot VaYakhel and Pekudei. It contains a repetition of the Mishkan – the difference being that the first two parshiyot are God's instructions to Moshe, while the second two is Moshe's instructions to the people and their fulfillment of that command.

These parshiyot are so repetitive that Rashi does not repeat his comments. So why are all the details repeated in such depth? This question is strengthened when we consider another issue.

The parsha begins with the commandment to keep the Shabbat. Now even though the commandment about Shabbat appears in a number of places throughout the Torah, the Torah does not actually provide many details as to what keeping the Shabbat entails. I does tell us that we must do any melacha, normally translated as work, however it does not actually define the term. In deed, it is left up to the Oral Law to describe in detail, the many different melachot that are forbidden on the Sabbath.

So, why does the Torah spend so much time describing the details of the Mishkan, when it would only ever be built once in history and which Judaism has survived for thousands of years without, while it is vague about Shabbat, which is kept week in week in week out?

Some commentaries have explained that the Torah wanted us to understand how much the building of the Mishkan was a labor of love for the whole people. However, surely the Sabbath is also a day of love and deserves its details.

The answer lies in the question itself. Judaism is passed on through the family. Most religious Jews know the laws of Shabbat, not because they have studied them in books, but because they keep them week in week out. The laws therefore, do not need to be recorded in detail. The Torah wants us to learn His ways through our parents and for us to pass it on to our children. And the Shabbat has survived.

Yet, the Mishkan is lost to us. No one has seen it since it was dismantled in Solomon's days. We even have no idea as to how Herod's Temple appeared from the inside.

Yet, that is not the case about the Mishkan. It has survived because it was so lovingly recorded in the Torah. Without all this detail, a major piece of ancient Israel would be lost for us; and when the time comes to re-build it, we would have no idea how to even begin.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Parshat Ki Tissa

There are four Sedra Shorts on Pashat Ki Tissa:

Blood Money

The Other Golden Calves

Counting the People

The Golden Calf

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.

The Other Golden Calves

This week's parsha sees the ultimate betrayal. Only a few months previously, God had brought Israel out of Egypt with tremendous miracles, culminating with the splitting of the Red Sea. Seven weeks later, God revealed Himself to the entire people and gave them the Ten Commandments. They began with the words: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt" (Shemot 20:1).

Yet, when Israel created the Golden Calf they proclaimed: "This is your god O Israel, who has brought you up from the land of Egypt" (ibid 32:4).

What is interesting is that Israel makes this very same proclamation just over 400 years later.

The northern tribes had just broken away from the rule of Rechavam, the Davidic king. Yeravam, the Northern Kingdom's newly crowned king, is worried that his secession would be short lived as his people's spiritual center continued to be Jerusalem. Therefore, he created his own spiritual centers: "The king took counsel and made two golden calves, and he said to them, saying, 'It is far for you to go up to Jerusalem; here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt'" (I Melachim 12:28).

Once cannot help but notice this parallel. For the second time in history, Israel has created golden calves and they make the same declaration about them being the gods who brought Israel out of Egypt. The Soncono commentary on Melachim asks whether it is possible that this formula was peculiar to calf-worship. However, surely these words would remind Israel of their previous apostasy and would teach them that these gods that Yeravam created were false and calamitous?

Perhaps however, these words were not actually said by Yeravam. What does this mean?

When the Tanach records conversations, it does not normally quote the exact words. Conversations were likely to be much longer, but the Torah just brings the summary, or the main points it wants us to learn. Indeed, the Daat Mikra commentary writes that only when the Torah uses the Hebrew word "
לאמר" - "saying", is it giving an exact quote. Otherwise the, Torah just brings the main ideas.

Therefore, rather than asking why Yeravam said what he said, we should be asking why the author of Sefer Melachim quotes Yeravam as saying: "Here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt."

It is possible that Yeravam did not say those words. Indeed, he would have been very foolish to say so. However, the prophet wants us to realize that Yeravam understood that he was not merely making a political decision to stabilize his own rule. The prophet wants us to know that Yeravam and the people fully appreciated that he was turning Israel into apostates on the same degree as the Golden calf apostasy.

If the Prophet would have quoted Yeravam's actual words, we, the reader would not have understood that Yeravam and the people were making a huge apostasy. We would have thought that he was just making a political decision. However, by bringing the quote from our parsha, we, the reader, now understand that Yeravam was fully aware of the great evil that he was doing.

Counting the People

Moshe made a number of population censuses during Israel's wandering in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout the Tanach, especially before battles, the people are counted. Nevertheless, counting the people could lead to disaster and therefore the Torah says that a donation of half shekel should be made as part of the census. This will be considered as atonement for their souls so that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted" (Shemot 30:12).

There was one instance when the disaster struck Israel as the direct outcome of a census.

In the final chapter of Sefer Shmuel, King David tells Yoav: "Go now to and fro throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-Sheva, and count the people, that I may know the sum of the people" (II Shmuel 24:2).

Yoav's response is one of caution: "May the Lord your God increase the number of the people many hundreds of times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it; but why does my lord the king desire this thing?" (ibid 3).

It is clear that Yoav was against the mission and saw it as asking for trouble.

Nevertheless, being a loyal servant, Yoav traverse the country and counts the people. After nine months and twenty days he reports his conclusions (1,300,000 fighters) back to the king. David immediately recognizes his mistake and his "heart smote him after that he had numbered the people" and he admits he has "been very foolish" (ibid 10).

70,000 people die as a result of a plague, a punishment that David chose, as a result of the census.

What is so bad about a census and why can it be catastrophic?

The answer is nothing; as long as there is a purpose to the census. The fact is that in order to prepare a country for the future, governments need to know its population tally, both nationally regionally and the projected growth in the different areas.

Yet, David's only desire was to "know the sum of the people", i.e. to know how powerful his kingdom was. So Yoav tries to dissuade him telling him that that he should be even greater but that he doesn't really need to know the exact figure.

However, when Moshe and others count the people, it is because they need to know how many fighters they have at their disposal, as they are preparing for battle.

That is why the actual counting is dangerous. The minute the people (AKA men of military age) are being counted, fear sets in that war (and possibly even a new taxation) is imminent. When will they see their families again, who will tend to the farm and ensure that their families are safe and looked after, and will they even be returning? The effect on the morale, the economy and other aspects of family and national life can be devastating.

Therefore, counting the people for no purpose is not just pointless, it's counter-productive.

In order to offset the breakdown in morale, the Torah asks that everyone counted submit a half shekel donation to the Temple. The people, who are confident in God's protective powers, will then have the assurance that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted". They and their families will be safe.

The Golden Calf

Israel witnessed frightening events when God revealed Himself to Israel at Sinai (See Shemot Chapter 20). They then saw Moshe go up the mountain into the eye of the storm, without any food or provisions. He had not been seen since.

Israel's reaction was "Make us a god (elohim) that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don't know what has become of him".

This is strange, because if they wanted a replacement for god, Moshe's disappearance is irrelevant.

We have therefore to alternatives to understanding the people's requests:

The people thought the Moshe was a god
The people wanted a replacement for Moshe

It is easy to understand why the people may have thought that Moshe was a divine being. The people had seen Moshe perform signs, the ten plagues to Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the falling of the Manna and the water from the rock. Despite Moshe's insistence that they worship God, the people, with a primitive understanding of religion, may have still believed that he was a god.

However, even if the people did not think that Moshe we can still understand their request as a seeking a replacement for Moshe. If so, then why do the people ask for a

Within, Sefer Shemot, we have numerous examples where the word elohim, does not necessarily mean, God, but leader:

"Then his master shall bring him to the judges (elohim), and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post" (21:6).

"The plea[s] of both parties shall come to the judges (elohim), [and] whoever the judges (elohim) declare guilty shall pay twofold to his neighbor (22:8).

However, the most telling is:

"The Lord said to Moses, "See! I have made you a lord (elohim) over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your speaker" (7:1).

While it is also possible that Pharaoh also saw Moshe as a god, it is clear that God did not. Therefore, the word elohim does not necessarily mean God.

Therefore, by calling for the Golden Calf, Israel did not seek to replace God Himself, only Moshe. The problem, however, is that once the calf was created, the people forgot that it was merely a medium, but a god itself.