May 25, 2017

The Leviim shall be Mine – I am Hashem. (Num 3:45)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that there is a well-known halachic distinction that differentiates between the holiness of objects.

It bases that distinction upon their proximity to some item of intrinsic kedushah/ holiness. An accessory to kedushah must itself be treated with kedushah and elevated respect. But that which serves the accessory – an accessory to an accessory, if you will – does not require the reverential treatment of a single or primary accessory.

The primary accessory cannot be casually disposed of, but requires sequestering or burial; the secondary accessory does not.

Tefillin, for example, possess intrinsic holiness because of the Names of God they contain, both the scrolls and even the black leather boxes in with those scrolls are inserted.
A bag designated for tefillin is a primary accessory, and is treated itself like a holy object. A second bag into which the tefillin bag is placed is a secondary accessory, and not treated with kedushah.

We can make a case for our parshah being the source of this distinction. Both Kohanim and Leviim serve in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdosh, places of great intrinsic kedushah. A key difference between them is that Kohanim are employed in the direct service of the mishkan. That puts them essentially in the position of primary accessories to kedushah.
Leviim, however, are described as “given to Aharon and his sons,” i.e. they are accessories to the Kohanim who are themselves accessories. As secondary accessories, they are not treated as possessing kedushah.

This is exactly how they are treated.
The Torah commands, “Holy they will be” in reference to the Kohanim. A kohen’s daughter, possessed of this kedushah, becomes disqualified from eating ma’aser if she participates in an illicit union. Ironically, a Levi’s daughter who does the same does not become disqualified.

Tosafos explains that the kedushah of the Kohen (and hence his daughter) is one that physically consecrates. When this kedushah is sullied and violated, it disappears entirely. She becomes disqualified even from eating maaser, which is available even to the Levi. On the other hand, the lesser specialness vouchsafed a Levi is hardier. When his daughter violates it, it does not disappear completely.

The key difference is that the Kohen’s position acts like real kedushah. As a primary accessory to essential kedushah, he enjoys a position that behaves like other forms of kedushah . What the Levi enjoys as a secondary accessory is not really kedushah in the same sense. It is a function of status, not kedushah. It does not vanish when mistreated.

In transporting the various components of the mishkan – all of which enjoyed kedushah – the Leviim generally moved them through wagons. Thus, the wagons became primary accessories, but the Leviim did not. The Kehas family was the exception. They bore the most important utensils on their shoulders – but only after those utensils were placed in covers. Those covers became primary accessories, and the Leviim again acted only as secondary accessories.
The strongest indication of that the difference in status of Kohanim and Leviim translates into kedushah or lack thereof comes from the way their relationship with Hashem is described.

God is called, “Hashem, their Elokim,” regarding the Kohanim; He is simply called “Hashem” when speaking of the Leviim. Now, the four-letter Name of G-d does not take a possessive. One cannot speak of “my Hashem.” This is not so in regard to Elokim/ God, where the Torah in fact does utilize phrases like, zeh keli/ “this is my God.”

The use of the possessive in relation to the Kohanim (“…their Elokim”) tells us of a closer relationship and bond between Kohanim and HaShem than can exist with Leviim. That closer relationship results in real kedushah.

In memory of my Father zatzal, the Kohen Gadol of his town.

Shabbat shalom


May 18, 2017

“When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Shabbos rest for Hashem. For six years you may sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard” (25:2-3)

In this week’s Sedra, the Meshech Chochmah, in his own unique style draws it the distinction between a sale and a gift, Shabbat and Yom Tov, and Shemitta and Yovel.

He writes that there are two opposing opinions in the Talmud regarding the attitude of a seller.
One opinion has it that sellers part with the land they relinquish with a jaundiced eye. The transaction should be assumed to be constructed narrowly; the buyer is entitled to the bare minimum of what the document or agreement explicitly states, to the exclusion of rights and privileges that conceivably could have been bundled together with the land.

A dissenting opinion sees the seller transferring property with a generous spirit. Various privileges that naturally “go” with the land can be assumed to have been implicit in the agreement.

The existence of two contradictory opinions indicates to us that there is some truth to both of those positions. Both are defensible!

In examining the parallel case of a gift – rather than a sale – we find no disagreement. All agree that a gift comes with the trimmings. One who bestows a gift does so from a place of generosity.

Keeping this distinction in mind, let us return to our pesukim. The first serves as an introduction “When you come into the Land that I give you…” Should you think that the laws of shmitah are meant to limit your enjoyment of the Land into which I lead you, says Hashem, think again! The land is a gift, and gifts are given generously. It could not be otherwise. A sale would require some payment, some consideration given by the buyer to the Seller. Is there anything you can give Me?

You must understand shmitah otherwise. I wish you to fully enjoy the land and its produce. The gift is predicated, however, on you living up to a standard of holiness/ kedushah, and treating the Land as holy as well. “The Land shall observe a Shabbos rest for Hashem.” The holiness of the Land is such that even if part of it is dedicated by you to Me, the laws of shmitah must be observed. I desire that you fill yourselves with the good of the Land. But the seventh year must testify to the place of the miraculous in My providence. Were there no other purpose for shmitah – and there certainly are! – it would be worthwhile to display the constancy of the miraculous, as the special blessing of the Land in the sixth year sustains it through the entire seventh.

Chazal take note of the similarity between our “Shabbos rest for Hashem” and the Shabbos mentioned in Bereishis. This observation may have halachic importance. The styles of Shabbos and Yom Tov clash. Shabbos is set and fixed. It is just-so. Man has no say in determining to which calendar day it attaches. That decision is literally made in Heaven. Yom Tov, on the other hand, is set and determined by Man. Beis din, the Jewish court, has significant leeway in manipulating the date upon which an upcoming holiday will fall by accepting or not accepting witnesses who sighted the new moon, and in arranging ordinary and full months on the calendar. In our davening, we bless Hashem who “sanctifies Shabbos,” but who “sanctifies Yisroel and the [special] times,” meaning that He sanctifies Yisroel, who then use that holiness to sanctify the holidays.

This difference in style carries over to shmitah and yovel as well. Shmitah is a Shabbos, as shown above. Thus, if the preparatory steps leading to shmitah are not in place, shmitah will arrive on its own. Should the beis din not count off the years leading to shmitah as they are supposed to; should people fence off their property and prevent all entry – the laws of shmitah will still apply. The seventh year is a Shabbos, and Shabbos comes and goes as it pleases.

Regarding yovel/ the fifteeth year, however, the Torah instructs, “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year.” The Torah treats yovel in much the same way that it treats Yom Tov. Both require sanctification by Man. Should the court fail to herald the yovel year through sounding the shofar; should servants not be freed, or land not returned to its familial owners – the other laws of yovel will simply not apply. There will be no prohibition in such a case of working the land.

Shmitah signifies Hashem’s role as Creator, and therefoe as Master and Owner of the land. Yovel, on the other hand, hinges upon awarding freedom to servants. It takes us back conceptually to winning our freedom from servitude in Egypt. Remembering the Exodus is an essential theme of each Yom Tov, a day that achieves its holiness only through the declaration of Man.

Shabbat shalom


May 11, 2017

It is an eternal decree in your dwelling places for your generations. (23:21)

In this week’s sedra of Emor, the Meshech Chochmah takes flight, explaining why the first Pesach in Egypt had more of a shabbat feel than a yom tov feel. he then goes on to explain the differences and some of the aspects of the Festival of Shavuot.

The Meshech Chochmah writes that Mitzvos forge new relationships. Some mitzvos bind us to our Creator – tzitzis, tefillin, mezuzah. Others tie us to each other, like gemilas chasodim and the interpersonal commandments. The difference between the two is at work in the separate paths taken by Shabbos on the one hand, and Yom Tov on the other.

Shabbos is more of an individual-friendly institution than a community-builder. Carrying is forbidden, which restricts our ease of sharing with others. So many of the steps of food preparation are forbidden. That removes one of the easiest ways of bringing people together. Instead, Shabbos creates space in which each person can spend quality time studying Torah – or intensifying the relationship between himself and God. This does not, however, move people away from each other. To the contrary. As long as Jews are connected to Hashem, they are like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, all joined at the origin – their connection to HaShem. Through that common point of connection, they are all bound together, by way of their common relationship with Hashem. But the connection remains indirect, through a third party, rather than directly, one person to the other.

Yom Tov, on the other hand, is one of the mitzvos that binds people directly to each other. It demands that the nation come together in a central place, and there rejoice and help others rejoice. Not only is food preparation permitted, but so are carrying from one domain to another, as well as burning fuel. Were the two of them forbidden (as they are on Shabbos), it would severly limit attempts of people to come together.

As the Jews readied themselves to leave Egypt, they were not yet bound to each other in any significant way. They were indeed of one mind and purpose; all were committed to the One God of Israel. They were tied together, therefore, only by way of their common link to Hashem. The avodah of that evening, therefore, resembled the conduct of Shabbos. Only those who prepare food before Shabbos have what to eat when it begins. The korban Pesach as well required people to ready themselves before the evening. The korban could be consumed only by those pre-registered for it from the day before.

From that first day, we count seven weeks towards the holiday of Shavuos. The Torah describes the count as “from the morrow of the Shabbos.” It calls the first day of Pesach a “Shabbos” because both bind the people together only through their common devotion to Hashem, without assuming any more direct connection of people with each other. The counting of seven weeks towards the giving of the Torah brings the nation to greater awareness and a loftier spiritual station. Approaching Shavuos, their bond to each other matures, and becomes direct. We should now understand why at precisely this juncture the Torah introduces the laws of the mandatory gifts to the poor – the corners and gleanings of the field to be left to them. The people are now ready for mitzvos that strengthen their relationship with other people, not just with God.

This trajectory is unlike that of any other nation. Other people develop a common identity by dint of having lived together on the same land and having evolved a common culture. Klal Yisrael is very different. The glue of its nationhood is the Torah itself. The Jewish people know a strong bond to each other because they have all subordinated themselves to the Torah’s authority. Heaven itself is subordinate, as it were, to their understanding. The gemara states that it is the human court that determines the calendar – and hence the day a holiday will take place – and not the “objective” reality.

The implementation of that authority depends on obedience to the Torah greats of each generation. Without that, it is up to each individual’s understanding of the Torah’s demands, and we would be back at the original position of people linked not to each other, but to their loyalty to God. Through emunas chachamim and fealty to mesorah, we link ourselves to each other, and function not as individuals, but as a full Torah nation. A common conception of Torah becomes the glue that holds us together, not the evolution of a common culture as is the case with other nations.

When did the interpretive powers of Man first show themselves? The sixth day of Sivan. It was on that day that many expected the giving of the Torah. Moshe, however, reasoned that the “third day” about which Hashem had spoken actually predicted the seventh of Sivan. And that is what happened. The silence at the top of the mountain on the sixth marked, in a sense, the birth of the Jewish people as a Torah nation, bound to each other through a system of human understanding. Torah she-b’al-peh had spoken; the people were ready to stay united behind it.

While Chazal differed as to whether Yom Tov requires physical celebration or spiritual focus can substitute for it, there is no disagreement in regard to Shavuos. All authorities require an oneg Yom Tov of physical delights. Shavuos is the time that we became a nation of people bound directly to each other. It should be a time in which people strengthen that bond by sharing the food and friendship at a celebratory table.

This theme is reflected in the special offering of the day as well. The two loaves of bread are not offered on the altar. The kohanim, acting as the agents of the owners, eat the offerings. This stresses the nature of the day, one that is given over to lachem/ “to you,” the people, enjoying not only the Torah, but your coming of age as a nation.

Shabbat shalom


May 4, 2017

“He will provide atonement for you, to purify you.”

Meshech Chochmah writes that several times in the course of Yom Kippur we employ an unusual refrain in our davening. “You are the forgiver of Yisrael, and the pardoner of the tribes of Yeshurun.” The reference to “tribes of Yeshurun” is unparalleled in our liturgy.

We are accustomed to the idea of banishing gold from the avodah / service on Yom Kippur that took place in the Holy of Holies. From within this avodah, and in this specific place, came the forgiveness and atonement sought so desperately by a nation eager to reestablish its closeness with its Creator.

According to R. Levi, for this reason the Kohen Gadol did not don his regal gold garments in the Kodesh Kodashim – Hashem had stated from the outset that He would not destroy the people because of the sin of the eigel/ Golden Calf, but would visit the punishment upon them in installments.

Each generations receives some small measure of punishment for that early national failure. Another way of looking at this is that the sin of the eigel was never purged from the Jewish people; its fault line still runs through our national neshamah. It would be inappropriate and presumptuous to perform the key avodah asking for forgiveness while flaunting a symbol of a national failing that we have still not adequately addressed.

All this is familiar to us. Less known is the similar thinking regarding a different national shortcoming – the sale of Yosef into slavery. A midrash states that this aveirah as well persists through all generations. Calling attention to it at the most crucial juncture of the Yom Kippur avodah is as inappropriate as dressing for it in the gold that is symbolic of the eigel. On the other hand, when we send away the goat to the wilderness, which symbolizes our distancing ourselves from aveirah, the goat bears a reference to the tragic sale of Yosef. The length of red wool that was attached to it weighed two sela’im, recalling the special coat of the same weight that Yaakov gave to Yosef.

According to the gemara, the jealously provoked in the brothers through this showing preference for one brother among the others led to the sale of Yosef, and the subsequent descent of the rest of the family to Egypt and into servitude.

Keeping this principle in mind, we can understand why the Holy of Holies – the location of the yearly atonement-service – stood in the portion of the Land allotted to the tribe of Binyamin. Alone among the shevatim, he was not involved in Yosef’s sale. While the lion’s share of the Temple area (the ascent of the Temple mount and the courtyards) stood in Yehudah’s portion, the building structure (including the Kodesh Kodashim) belonged to Binyamin.

The avodah of atonement had to be linked to a space free of the taint of the sin of internecine strife between brothers. As Chazal put it, the prayers of those who showed no compassion to their brother would not be answered with Divine compassion.

God says that he “visits the sins of the fathers upon the sons;” Chazal interpret this as applying narrowly to sons who persist in the ways of their forbears.

Putting all we have said together, when we continue sinning against God, He visits the sin of the eigel upon us. When we transgress laws of proper behavior to our fellow Jew, we are punished for the sin of Yosef’s sale.
For this reason, the Kohen Gadol / High Priest did not wear the choshen/ breastplate into the Kodesh Kodashim. The choshen bore the names of the twelve shevatim/ tribes. Sporting those names pointed an accusatory finger at the people for their continued practice of brother-against-brother sin. (This also accounts for the opinion of Rav Huna that the Urim V’Tumim ceased functioning after the times of Dovid and Shlomoh. After their deaths, the people divided into two kingdoms, with ten tribes in the northern kingdom, and Yehudah and Binyamin left in the other. The Divine messages received through the Urim V’Tumim folded within the choshen came by way of the various stones lighting up in sequence. By combining the letters of each stone – each identified with a different shevet – the message could be unscrambled and discerned.

But how could the letters of the different stones combine with each other, when the tribes they represented were plagued with dissension, and could not join together)

We have arrived at the answer to our opening question. Standing before Hashem each Yom Kippur, we pray for kapparah/ atonement. We are conscious of transgressions we committed against Him. For these we daven that He should forgive Yisrael. (All those aveiros still stem from the unextinguished sin of the eigel.)

There, those dancing around it said, “These are your gods, Yisrael.”And after Moshe’s invervention, Hashem responded, “I have forgiven them, according to your words.”

We also stand under the weight of many transgressions against our fellow Jew. For those we pray that He should pardon “the tribes of Yeshurun,” recalling that these shortcomings are tributaries of the first such sin – the sale of Yosef by the shevatim.

Shabbat shalom


April 26, 2017

He shall be brought to Aharon the kohen, or to one of his sons the kohanim.[13:2]

On this verse the Meshech Chochmah writes that we have no easy, apparent explanation for why Aharon is singled out to pass judgment on what looks like a medical symptom.

Furthermore, because the examination of the metzora takes place outside the precincts of the beis ha-mikdosh, it cannot be considered avodah in the usual sense.
This makes it one of two examples (along with the preparation of the parah adumah) of procedures that are not part of the avodah yet nonetheless require a kohen.

We can suggest the reason for the Torah’s insistence on a kohen by noting that nega’im were held to be terribly contagious.
The midrash. [Vayikra Rabba 16:3] speaks of precautions that great people took to distance themselves from those stricken by nega’im. One refused to come closer than a hundred amos; another spurned food coming from the same alleyway; yet another would not walk into an alleyway shared by a nega-victim.

Our parshah instructs the metzora to call out, “Tameh! Tameh!” – apparently as a warning for others to give him a wide berth.

Having established the danger in any contact with the metzora– candidate, we can understand the Torah’s insistence on the kohen as the examiner. How are we to obligate public servants to expose themselves to considerable risk in ministering to the metzora?

Our best candidates will be those who enjoy a special kind of Divine providence and protection. Kohanim are quite often treated as members of a subgroup who stand apart from other Jews. They have special roles, for which they ready themselves through special restrictions and responsibilities. Their special status allows for a Divine oversight that is more focused and attentive, as it were, to their needs.

They are the ones who can best afford to take the risk of contagion from the metzora.

Shabbat shalom


April 19, 2017

One of the longest comments of the Meshech Chochma in his commentary on the Torah comes in our Sedra of Shemini ( Vayikra 10:3)

He has a fascinating view of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

This is what Hashem had spoken, saying, “I will be sanctified through those close to Me. Before the entire nation I will be honored.”

Meshech Chochmah asks: Does Hashem seek or achieve “honor” through the death of those whom He values as close to Him? Certainly not. It is not so difficult, however, to piece together the state of mind of the nation at the time, and to quickly understand how in fact the long-term honor of Hashem hinged upon His quick punishment of Nadav and Avihu.

Man’s ability to relate to Hashem is wondrous – and complex. Where others grasp at straws in finding ways to come closer to Him, He paved a clear path for us to move ourselves forward towards Him, through the system of the mitzvos – a practical program of Divine service. It is a program that is demanding, and fraught with opportunities for failure. In His wisdom and compassion, He accounted for human frailty by allowing for repentance, and by dealing with us with more rachamim than din.

Early in their history as a nation, Klal Yisrael experienced spiritual defeat. The sin of the golden calf was a major failing. Yet, as they arrived at this point in time, the eighth day of the consecration of the mishkan, they could look back in recent time and note triumph built upon the devastation wrought by their transgression. Moshe had interceded on their behalf in the aftermath of the egel. They had enthusiastically put together the materials for the mishkan, and saw the project through to completion. The Clouds of Glory, which had departed after the chet ha-egel, had returned. The Shechinah itself had taken up residence in their midst, showing itself in a fire that descended from Heaven. They had established a system of kohanim and levi’im to take charge on behalf of the nation of an order of mishkan-service that would keep the Divine presence in their midst.

This is wonderful and inspiring for us to behold, but people easily could have reached a dangerous conclusion. They might conclude that HaShem is not particularly zealous about adherence to His demands; that He would routinely look the other way upon human sin and failings. Just think about how deeply Klal Yisroel had disappointed Him – and how easily He was appeased.

Had people come to this conclusion, consciously or otherwise, the entire human enterprise would have been put in danger. We are indeed vouchsafed Hashem’s rachamim, but there is also Divine justice. Hashem meticulously weighs when to show forbearance and compassion, and when to show that what He asks of us is not arbitrary. Sin is toxic, and it leaves consequences. If sin becomes in the human mind just a small bump in the road rather than a monstrous problem, people will not and cannot progress the way He intended them to.

The deaths of Nadav and Avihu demonstrated the other side of the coin – Divine seriousness about chet, and Hashem’s strictness in managing it. On the day of great joy at the inauguration of the mishkan, Nadav and Avihu were nonetheless cut down by Hashem for deviating ever so slightly from what they had been commanded. The impact upon the people was enormous. The incident served as an effective counterforce to the impression that they did not have to be so exacting about listening to His instructions.

Aharon understood this. In fact, this realization allowed him to bear his personal tragedy in silence. He comprehended just how important the lesson of the deaths of his sons would be on the future of the entire people. He also understood that he was not to bear the tragedy in solitude. Nadav and Avihu needed to provide an object lesson to the people only because that people had failed so miserably with the chet ha-egel. Had they not built the egel, nothing in the next months of their journey would have suggested to them that Divine justice was more relaxed than it is. Aharon understood that the chet ha-egel necessitated the death of his two sons, and it was therefore a matter of national responsibility to mourn for them, not his personal pain to be borne alone. For this reason the word went out, “And your brothers – all of Bnei Yisrael – will mourn the destruction that Hashem destroyed.”

Building on the pasuk “A good name is better than good oil,” a midrash compares Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah favorably to Nadav and Avihu. The Kiddush Hashem brought about by Daniel’s three friends who willingly faced the fires of Nevuchadnetzar’s furnace, Chazal tell us, was greater than that generated by Nadav and Avihu, who had recently been sanctified through the good anointing oil. Nevuchadnetzar reacted with genuine humility, reverence and awe at the sight of Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah emerging alive and unscathed from the raging fires of the furnace. Chazal teach that he was brought to such ecstasy regarding Hashem and His power, that had it not been for the intervention of an angel, Nevuchadnetzar would have composed songs of praise to Hashem that would have put Dovid’s Tehillim to shame.

The malach was that of human lust – the same one the Chazal see as overcoming Yehudah when he chanced upon Tamar on the road. His inclination was to avoid her, by crossing to the other side, until the angel of taavah ignited in him an unusually strong attraction. In the case of Nevuchadnetzar, some form of taavah quickly distracted him, marring the supernal spirituality of the moment, and ensuring that he could not distill the experience into words of everlasting worth beyond his original reaction.

The difference between the two incidents follows from our discussion above. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu served as a corrective to a misimpression about Divine justice. The harsh punishment of two spiritual giants termed “close” by Hashem restored a sense of proper fear of punishment to the people. But a more important form of yir’ah is yir’as ha-Romemus, reverence for Hashem’s greatness. That yir’ah was communicated by Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah at the furnace.

We can appreciate the superiority of Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah’s sanctification of Hashem by way of a mashal. Both a mother and a wet-nurse eat, and provide nutrients to the baby they sustain. The wet-nurse, conscious of her service to the baby, nonetheless enjoys her food. She will, at times, eat things that are not particularly helpful to the baby if they appeal to her, and avoid foods that are beneficial to the baby if they do not appeal. The mother, on the other hand, eats selflessly, seeing herself as a mere conduit of benefit to the beloved child.

At the giving of the Torah, Nadav and Avihu were among the privileged few to ascend upon the mountain itself, while the people waited below. The Torah tells us that “they beheld God, and ate and drank.” The Targum renders this “they rejoiced as if they ate or drank.” In other words, they found personal enjoyment in being treated to a clearer understanding of Hashem’s nature for the purpose of sharing that experience with the rest of the people. They acted like the wet-nurse, happy to sustain the child she nurtures, but leaving room for her own needs. Had Nadav and Avihu seen themselves simply as conduits of information from Hashem to the people, they would not have personalized the experience. There would have been no room for their own egos in a selfless experience, akin to the role of the mother nursing the child.

For people of their stature, this was a fatal flaw. They should have been punished on the spot, Chazal tell us, but Hashem did not want to mar the occasion of matan Torah. He waited till the inauguration of the mishkan to mete out His punishment. They died, albeit in a manner that taught a lesson about His strictness concerning observance of the Law.

Their death proved to be a massive kiddush Hashem. It strongly contrasts with that of Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah, and why Chazal saw theirs as superior. Daniel’s three friends provided the Kiddush Hashem and remained alive! Their self-sacrifice was fuller than that of Nadav and Avihu. They could have avoided the confrontation with the idolaters by fleeing in advance. They consciously chose to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the community, to inspire the community to tenaciously cling to their beliefs. They acted like the mother, not like the wet-nurse.

By leaving room for their own selves and needs at Har Sinai, apart from the needs of the tzibbur, Nadav and Avihu’s Kiddush Hashem demanded that they continue to stay apart from the community. They died. Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah, however, determined to make themselves part of the tzibbur when their personal concerns would have led them to abstract themselves from the community. Because they chose to align themselves with the tzibbur, risking their lives to do so, their Kiddush Hashem allowed them to emerge alive and rejoin the people.

Shabbat shalom


April 13, 2017

Just a couple of short thoughts from the Meshech Chochma on Pesach.

1. The Meshech Chochma [Shemos, 12:17] notes that Shabbat and Pesach share shemira, i.e. the underlying theme of guarding. Guard the Shabbat, Guard the Matzos, Guard the Pesach, Guard the spring month.

Guarding/watching encompasses the entire character of Shabbat and Pesach, for they are to remain separate and distinct. Thus the essential character of Shabbat and Pesach are very much linked – guarded from external intrusions.

2. The Meshech Chochmah explains why it is that Pesach is so well known for its stringencies. People, he writes, are careful in every aspect of the laws of Pesach, taking on extra stringencies as a matter of course, however, why should this be so?

He explains that the source for this is actually Klal Yisroel and their lifestyle in Mitzrayim. Although they were rooted in sin and idolatry, they strictly maintained certain stringencies and safeguards; they kept their Jewish names, their language and their distinctive Jewish clothes.

It was this merit, which we would have thought would have been countermanded by their sins, which ensured their redemption. Therefore we see, continues the Meshech Chochmah, that the merit of these stringencies can supersede even that of actual Halocho and Torah.

He explains that this is because those stringencies served to separate Klal Yisroel from the world around. Even whilst acting like them, they were different and they recognised this inherent truth. In contrast, he writes, we who have lost these stringencies have seen assimilation run rife, we have seen the loss of vast numbers of Jews to assimilation and intermarriage whilst our ancestors in the merit of these stringencies went free. Therefore, we attempt to regain some of this merit on Pesach by keeping to stringencies that we would perhaps not otherwise maintain.

Chag Sameach


April 5, 2017

He placed the shirt upon him, and tied the sash/Avnet around him. (8:7)

Meshech Chochmah writes that we know the fabric content of the kohen gadol’s avnet, because it is described explicitly in the Torah as containing both wool and linen thread. We have no such description for the avnet of the common kohen.

According to one opinion, the avnet of the commoner did not contain the usually forbidden shatnez mixture. Tosafos explain that it is reasonable to limit the surprising allowance of shatnez to the kohen gadol, whose other garments (ephod, choshen) also contained shatnez, and exclude the allowance from ordinary kohanim, whose other garments were of plain linen, without any admixture of wool.

The deeper meaning behind this distinction stems from the function of the bigdei kehunah, which is to serve as kapparah for certain sins. The avnet is linked to thoughts of sin. Now, the garments of the common kohen atoned for murder and for illicit relations, both of which are active transgressions. The garments of the kohen gadol, however, included the ephod, which atoned for avodah zarah. This last transgression differs markedly from the others, in that it is primarily a transgression of mind and attitude; it can be violated without any active manifestation.

Sinful thoughts of avodah zarah are thus much more significant than those of other aveiros, in that they are part and parcel of the primary sin. This means that the sins of mind addressed by the avnet of the kohen gadol are on a different plane than the thoughts of sin of the common kohen addressed through his own avnet. The latter show a deficiency that needs addressing, but not a deficiency as deep as that of thoughts of avodah zarah.

The Torah underscores the difference by making the two avnets of different materials. Since the kohen gadol wore an ephod that atoned for the most serious inner transgressions of mind and thought, his avnet matched the ephod he wore at the same time.

We can take the discussion further. Ultimately, all sins are branches reaching out from three roots, i.e.the three cardinal sins. All sins of lust and desire are sourced within the sin of gilui arayos. Sins that involve jealousy of and harm to others are related to murder. That leaves avodah zarah as the source of all aveiros between Man and G-d.

On Yom Kippur, we are told , Soton holds no sway over us. Yet the gemara speaks of many people violating young women on this holiest of days itself! We must realize that we are freed on Yom Kippur from only one class of aveirah. By desisting from eating, drinking and other activities, we downplay the importance of the physical, allowing us to become more angelic, for our spirits to return to their Divine source. The kohen gadol dramatizes this by taking his avodah into the kodesh kodashim itself, symbolically restoring our neshamos to the place from which they came.

In such an environment, there is no room for transgressions of the mind and spirit. No need on such a day for atonement for thoughts of avodah zarah. The kohen gadol wears no ephod in that inner avodah; his avnet is of pure linen. Man’s spirit is elevated by the day itself; what remains are the coarser elements of the nature that we share with lower animals. The urge to violate young women, coming from this more primitive part of ourselves, is not naturally quashed. Coarser individuals succumb even on Yom Kippur!

Yom Kippur, we learn, is like a mikvah, purifying those who immerse themselves within it. We have seen how the avodah of the kohen gadol in the Holy of Holies expresses this. We use the immersion procedure in yet another way. The Jewish people as a mystical entity – Knesset Yisrael – remains always connected to HaShem in the days before Yom Kippur, we multiply acts of tzedakah and chesed, immersing ourselves, so to speak, more deeply into a union with that entity. By doing this, we become like branches grafted on to a tree, becoming one with the trunk itself, and through it, to Hashem as well.

Shabbat shalom


March 30, 2017

Slaughter it at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.(Vayikra 3:2)

On this verse the Meshech Chochmah writes that the gemara [Zevachim 55b] finds in this expression a requirement for the validity of a korban shelamim: it must be slaughtered only after the doors of the Ohel Moed have been opened.

Twice in the next few sections the Torah speaks of slaughter “in front of” the Ohel Moed. The anomalous reference to the “opening” sustains a legal position that the slaughter of the shelamim can only take place when the animal stands before the unobstructed entrance-way of the Ohel, and not just in front of it.

Similar phraseology indicates that the sprinkling of the blood of the olah also requires that the doors of the Ohel be open.

Now, one part of the avodah of animal korbanos certainly does not require that the doors be open. The burning of the specified limbs of the korban takes place even at night, after the closing of the doors. Putting it all together, we can say that the initial steps of the offering of an animal must take place by day; the conclusion of the avodah can follow even by night.

Why would this be?

One of the underlying themes of korbanos is that the avodah must serve the full Essence of Hashem. Were it not for this requirement, people might subdivide their understanding of Divinity, and aim at one or other of the different elements, attributes, or Names with which our imperfect human minds use to grasp what we really cannot or, worse yet, to any force subsidiary to Him.

The Torah therefore insists that the beginning of sacrificial avodah take place during the daytime period, whose light speaks of illumination and relative clarity about the nature of Divinity, so that it is oriented at the full reality of Hashem. Once the avodah begins on the correct path, all steps that follow are drawn after the initial steps. The concluding burning of the limbs on the altar is therefore permitted at night.

We can easily show that the daytime hours are associated with a clearer, fuller revelation of Hashem’s Self. Hashem spoke to Moshe only by day. In fact, in his time on Mount Sinai, Moshe knew how to differentiate between day and night this way.

When Hashem spoke with him, he knew it was daytime below; when he had to study alone, he knew it was night. For this reason, the gemara speaks of the Shechinah standing opposite Torah scholars who study at night. Since the study of Torah is elsewhere likened to the avodah, we might make the mistake of taking the comparison too far, and see learning at night as the equivalent of the burning of the limbs, i.e. a lesser form of avodah, divorced from the greater revelation of Hashem by day. Therefore the gemara makes a point of stating that Torah study is different from animal avodah. “Arise, cry out at night…opposite the Face of Hashem.”

Learning Torah at night brings the fuller revelation of Hashem’s Presence which is elsewhere associated only with daytime.

We might look at Chazal’s praise of “evening” Torah study in a different manner. They might refer to the conditions of learning, rather than a time period. They perhaps reserve their praise for learning that takes place occluded from public scrutiny and accolades, privately and modestly, often under difficult circumstances, shrouded, as it were, in darkness.

It is not just the tzniyus and the dedication involved in such learning that make it so special. When we learn for a given purpose, e.g., to achieve honor, or to become an authority, or even to become better people, there is a disconnect between the activity of learning and the achieving of the purpose, which comes only after some time. We therefore do not feel the full sweetness of the learning until we near the goal. Those who learn “at night,” under trying circumstances and away from public adulation, do so because they have no goal and purpose other than bonding with Torah itself. Their reward is instantaneous with their learning. They connect with Hashem, and taste the pleasantness of Divine Torah.

Shabbat shalom


March 23, 2017

You shall place the golden altar for ketores before the Ark of testimony. (Shemot 40:5)

Meshech Chochmah writes that the pasuk certainly does not tell us to place the golden altar immediately in front of the aron, either within the Holy of Holies, nor right in front of it. We know where this mizbeach stood; it was displaced a considerable distance from the aron. It was further removed, in fact, than the shulchan and the menorah, both of which stood closer to the kodesh ha-kodashim. The simple reading of our text is an instruction that wherever it is placed, it should line up directly with the aron inside the kodash ha-kodashim, and not be displaced neither to the left nor the right.

Such a reading, though, is unsatisfying. If this were the Torah’s intention, the instruction belongs elsewhere. It would seem more appropriate in the section describing how Moshe set up the mishkan, and where he placed the kelim. A good candidate would be the pasuk that describes how Moshe placed the golden altar “in front of the paroches.”
Similarly, the Torah even earlier describes this altar as standing in front of the paroches. At either one of these places the Torah could have underscored that the altar should line up in a straight line (along the front-to-back axis of the mishkan) with the aron that stood behind the paroches.

We could imagine a different purpose for our pasuk: informing us about the function of the ketores itself. There were those – notably the Rambam[Moreh Nevuchim 3:45] that the aromatic ketores was meant to displace the otherwise foul odors that would seep into the structure of the mikdosh. We know the stench associated with abattoirs; the mikdosh was a place in which not only were animals slaughtered and butchered, but their fats were then burned day and night. The lingering effects would naturally be overpowering. The Torah, according to these sources, instructed as to burn powerful but sweet-smelling incense twice daily to counteract the less desirable smells.

Others strongly objected to this approach. If the function of the ketores were simply practical , why would the Torah list the ingredients of the ketores with great detail, and forbid any change in the recipe, as well as using the special blend for any other purpose? Ketores figured in the avodah of the week of the mishkan’s inauguration, before many animals had been slaughtered, and when the structure was taken apart and reassembled each day.

The Meshech Chochmah concludes that the purpose of the ketores was not just for the practical benefit of those who would come to the mishkan. Rather, it was what Chazal call tzorech Govoha/ a Divine need. This means that it was a necessary component in the precise manner in which Hashem wishes to be served in the mikdosh. Nothing in the avodah is arbitrary; the precise formulation of its requirements flows from its source in esoteric mysteries. Those privileged to have penetrated some of those mysteries are well aware of the lofty messages are incorporated in the ketores.

This, then, is the Torah’s intention in our pasuk. It describes the avodah of the ketores as “before the ark of testimony.” We are meant to understand that its purpose is not just to serve a practical human need, but to serve the Divine Presence that rests upon the ark of testimony.

Shabbat shalom