Korach 5777

June 22, 2017

“Speak to the Bnei Yisrael and take from them one staff for each father’s house” (17:17)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that by this time, the Korach rebellion had been quashed, thoroughly and totally. Not one, but three different dramatic forms of death had been dealt to the participants. Some were swallowed up by the earth. Others met death through a fire that burnt them internally. Huge numbers died in a fast-moving plague. You would think that by now, people would have gotten the message. All the conspirators, representing different kinds of claims against Moshe, had been destroyed.

What need was there for further confirmation of their authority? What were staffs that sprouted almonds going to prove to them that they did not already know?

The sprouting staffs provided the Bnei Yisrael with a dramatization of how they had fallen prey to Korach-and-company’s argument through a fundamental error. They had seriously misunderstood the nature of the kehunah. They believed that the priestly role was given to those who most deserved it. At the time, those from the shevet of Levi could lay claim to spiritual achievement above and beyond other tribes. The balance of spiritual power, they concluded, could change with time. If other groups would rise in spiritual stature, they would supplant the kohanim from the tribe of Levi.

Hashem’s choice of shevet Levi, however, was not conditioned upon its spiritual superiority. Rather, the kohanim shared some sort of property – whether discernable or not – that related them organically to the position of masters of the avodah. The kohanim were rather like the Jewish people as a whole, in a fixed position of specialness, even when seemingly undeserving of distinction.

Twelve staffs were selected. Their very selection pointed to a relationship that was innate, rather than earned. The “natural” first-born – Reuven – had lost his prominence because of his mercurial temperament. His distinction was replaced by Yosef, whose two sons – Ephraim and Menasheh – , with each elevated to the position of a semi-shevet. Yet in the selection of the staffs, Ephraim and Menasheh were treated as one group, not two.
Reuven, in turn, was back on an equal footing with all his brothers. It was as if Hashem had turned back the clock, and treated them according to their “natural” qualities, rather than according to how they had used their talents.

With the staffs of the shevatim thus arrayed according to their “natural” qualities, it was Aharon’s which sprouted fruit. Aharon emerged as the victor not only at that moment, but his selection quieted all complaints “for all time.”

In the “timeless” hierarchy of the people, Ephraim and Menasheh became one again, as they will be in the future. Chazal have this in mind when they teach that Aharon’s covenant was greater than Dovid’s. Aharon would have righteous and evil offspring – but they would all be kohanim. Dovid, however, was told that his descendants would hold on to the throne only when they remained true to their commission.

The people learned that any hope of the kehunah passing to others on the basis of merit was ill-founded. Aharon’s selection was a Divine statement about an inalienable quality in Aharon and his descendants – one that would be a permanent fixture for all time.

Shabbat Shalom veChodesh tov

Sh’lach Lecha

June 15, 2017

At the end of this week’s Sedra, the Torah writes the reason for the mitzva of Tzitzit ( it is the third paragraph of the Shema)

So that you will remember and perform all My mitzvos, and be holy to your G-d. (15:40)

The Meshech Chochmah comments:
We know and appreciate that the universe that Hashem created testifies to His greatness and wisdom, as well as to His own existence which is eternal, and precedes all time. We also understand that the world that we immediately inhabit is dynamic and changing. It does not, from our point of view, bear the same stamp of His absoluteness. Because He gave Man bechirah, the ability to choose between good and evil, Man’s choices constantly move the world further away or closer to the goal of Creation: arriving at a completed and fulfilled state. In other words, Man was tasked with the job of bringing the world to its intended completion.

When we examine the laws of nature, we find much of Hashem’s wisdom – but we do not always find a mirror of His perfection, at least not from a human perspective. To the contrary, we find randomness and apparent arbitrariness. Should we conclude that these laws will be subverted in the perfect worldly existence to come? That they will be replaced by kinder, gentler laws of nature?
Most definitely not.

Part of the perfection of our world – despite allowance for human free-will, are laws of nature that themselves are fluid and dynamic. Specifically, when Man acts properly, Nature becomes less arbitrary, and more skewed in favor of those who fulfill His Will. In a more perfected existence, the present laws of nature are not replaced, but operate more responsively to Man’s needs – which then coincide with His plan and desires. These laws become tools of Divine Providence, which moves from general oversight of Creation to the supervision of the needs of individuals as individuals. Rather than serving as counter-examples to Hashem’s control of the world, they become the modalities through which He maintains a world that has grown closer to His goals.

The days of Shimon ben Shetach exhibited this relationship between Nature and Hashem’s Will. The Talmud relates that the rain always fell on evenings in which people were indoors, and did not inconvenience human travelers. This rain nurtured crops bountiful in quantity and quality. No laws of nature were shunted to the side to accomplish this. Rather, the traditional laws were squeezed to produce results that reflected Divine pleasure in the actions of Man.

Another example is the copious blessing bestowed upon Oveid ha-Adomi during the time that he provided sanctuary to the Aron. There was nothing “miraculous” in the sense of overriding the laws of nature. Rather, those laws were used to channel blessing to the right recipients.

This is also what Chazal meant when they explained the meaning of one of Hashem’s Names as the One who “said dai / enough to his world. We should not understand that as limiting His creative powers in the world. Rather, they mean that He invested enough preparation and wisdom within Creation for it to support His guiding of it towards its eventual perfection and completion – all without the need for miraculous “overrides” of natural laws and forces.

Summing up so far, neither Man’s ability to choose (often resulting in moving the world more distant from Hashem than close to him), nor the apparent “blindness” of Nature to matters of moral right and wrong act to thwart the eventual perfection of this world. To the contrary. And this brings us, at long last, to tzitzis.

“He covers Himself with light like a garment.”[Psalms 104:2]
A midrash relates this to the process of Creation. Hashem wraps Himself in some light, which He then causes to shine from one end of the world to the other. With this, Chazal use inadequate human words and images to help us understand a bit of the incomprehensible – the first stages of Creation, in which some emanation from Hashem spreads out to create the backdrop of all existence. The image is powerful. It is appropriate, however, to speak of light as shining forth. Garments, though, don’t do that. How does light become a garment?

The Torah wishes for us to understand that this supernal light acted indeed like a garment, whose function is to separate and divide what it covers from the gaze of the external observer. Any unmediated “light” of Hashem would both overwhelm us in its brilliance, as well as strip us of any room to exercise bechirah. Its clarity would leave us no room to make the wrong choices. Even though in fact nothing separates and divides us from Hashem Who animates and empowers everything without exception, experientially the “light” was designed to cover and obscure His presence and nature from us. The light was modified to act like a garment that hides what is beneath.
Just as the Divine light paradoxically became an obscuring garment during the process of Creation, Creation itself remains an ongoing covering garment, shielding the Creator behind it, leaving Him hidden enough that we can find room to sin.

This creation-as-garment is the backdrop of the drama of tzitzis. Through this mitzvah, HaShem reminds us that the garment of Creation remains incomplete. It calls to Man to complete it.

The mitzvah of tzitzis tells us, quite literally, that there are loose ends to Creation. The strings that flow freely from the corners represent the unfinished business of existence, the parts of the garment that still have not been woven firmly into the rest of the fabric.

These strings, however, do not simply jut out from the woven part of the garment. They sprout from the section of knots and windings, in which the loose tendrils begin to come together in a larger form, but always surrounded by a single strand of techeles. That strand, representing the Honor of Hashem, reminds us that even in the work that Man does, he is surrounded and supported by the assistance of Heaven. Even in the arena of Man’s freely-willed activity, in reality it is He Who is the Force responsible for all activity.

Moreover, the work of Man is begun for him by HaSHem, Who reads his heart, and helps him along the path he chooses for himself. The anaf, the section of windings, also reminds Man that he should not follow his eyes and heart, but must rein in his passions and desires, and ensure that at all times he binds and ties himself to Hashem.

Shabbat shalom

Behaalotcha 5777

June 8, 2017

The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving, and the Bnei Yisrael also wept again, saying, “Who shall feed us meat?” (11:14)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that there was obviously no shortage of meat. In fact, a surfeit of cattle led to Reuven and Gad choosing to pass up their portion of the Land in favor of more appropriate grazing land on the east side of the Jordan. What they lacked was not the meat, but the ability to eat it the way they preferred, which was simply to satisfy their desire.

According to R. Yishmael, they were halachically constrained from consuming meat as a desirable menu item. Meat was permitted to this generation only as part of some holiness exercise, like the meat of a korban shelamim. Even those who disagree with R. Yishmael still had them subject to innumerable laws and restrictions regarding the preparation of meat before it could be eaten. They wanted the license to eat like they had earlier in Egypt – “we remember the fish that we ate for free.”
As Rashi explains, free means unencumbered by the demands of any mitzvos. Specifying fish is particularly apposite, because all of a fish is permitted – even its blood.

We can detect another dimension in their complaint. It was, after all, the Manna that they tired of, and wished some “real” food in its place. This becomes understandable if we remember that it was Moshe’s merit that brought them the Manna which was more spiritual than material, and is called the food of the angels.

Food does more than sustain us. Different foods affect our personalities differently. While plants nurture forces of life and growth within us, only animal flesh carries with it craving and lust. This is why the gemara states that an ignoramus may not eat meat. Without Torah, he has no defense against the elevation of his level of desire that the meat contributes to him.

Those who clamored for meat longed for the experience of passion and desire. The Manna was good food – perfect food, really. But they did not get from it the passion-surge that they reasoned they would get from meat. They longed for meat because they longed to experience longing!

The same phenomenon accounts for their “crying in/for their families,” which the Sifrei takes to mean arayos. This may not mean classes of forbidden relationships, as it is usually understood, but the experience of lust and desire in their intimate lives.

After the experience at Sinai, Moshe had become a “godly person,” and separated from his wife. Typical desires had become irrelevant to him on his lofty level. They had not become irrelevant to his people, some of whom wanted to see those desires return to their previous strength and prominence.
Moshe’s superior spiritual level made him the perfect conduit to provide the spiritual food of Manna to his people. By the same reasoning, however, he was useless in providing meat that was laden with desire. He therefore registered his complaint to Hashem. “Where will I get all this meat?” He knew that his merit was a mismatch for it.

So Hashem told Moshe to gather seventy people, each one worthy of receiving some of his spirit. Great as they were, they were not clones of Moshe – nor were they close. They had not separated from their wives; they still knew the meaning of taavah. If they would elevate their inner selves to the point that they, too, could be recipients of some of a Divine spirit, they would be suitable conduits to provide meat to the people.

Moshe, however, on his greater madregah, was not capable of providing the meat.

Shabbat shalom

Naso 5777

June 1, 2017

“On the day that he completes his nazir-abstinence, he should bring him to the opening of the Ohel Moed.” (6:13-4)

The Meshech Chochmah ask: who is the “he” of the second half of this posuk? Who is bringing whom?
We have no indication that some third party is involved in escorting the “graduating” nazir to the beis ha-mikdosh at the conclusion of his nezirus-period.

Interestingly, we also have no clue from the text about the prescribed length of that period. Chazal teach that if the nazir himself does not specify his period of abstinence, we fix it legally as thirty days. The Torah text itself, however, does not suggest a recommended length of term.

Nor can there really be a standard term. The purpose of the institution of nezirus is hinted at in a pasuk: “an abstinence of abstaining for Hashem.”
Nezirus is meant to be a corrective – to help an individual who wishes to extricate himself from his lusts and pride and excess. It should be employed as Shimon ha-Tzadik celebrated it, as used by the shepherd from the south. (Shimon ha-Tzadik regularly refused to take part in the eating of the offering of a nazir who had become tameh. He allowed one exception. A shepherd explained that he had knelt to draw water from a spring, and was taken in by reflection in the water. Pride welled up inside of him as he realized that he was quite good looking. To offset what he regarded as a threat to the humility he cherished, he vowed to become a nazir, and allowed his hair to grow disheveled and unattractive. Shimon ha-Tzadik eagerly hailed the shepherd’s motivation, and took part in his korban.)

No period of time can be predicted to suffice for the person warring with his inner desires. Each person needs to determine for himself how long a period will be therapeutic, and adequate to rein in his urges. He may require thirty days – or a hundred. Each person’s background and circumstances will differ from those of the next.

How can a person know when his goal of spiritual climbing has been reached? How can he determine that he has freed himself from the grip of the forces of his yetzer hora that, unchecked, leave him desolate and unrestrained? When can he tell himself that his intellect exercises control over his lower desires, rather than the opposite?
Our pasuk provides the answer.Our spiritual climber arrives at this destination when he is able to look at himself and his own needs as objectively as if he were looking at an unrelated third party. When he can view his situation without any worry of self-interest he can assure himself that he is enjoying the world appropriately, without engaging in excess.

Enjoy he should. Let his life-style place him firmly in the midst of the community of Man, rather than standing outside of is like an ascetic. Partaking of the physical pleasure of this world in an appropriate, i.e., not exaggerated, manner is what Hashem wants us to do.

The abstinence of the nazir is not a spiritual summit that we are asked to climb. To the contrary. It is an artificial device, meant to be cure spiritual illness. Generally, however, abstinence is viewed more negatively that positively. The nazir is called a “sinner” for having denied himself that which HAShem permits.

This is what the Torah means by “he should bring him.” The nazir’s work is done when he can stand outside of himself, as it were, and look at his needs as if he were looking at another person. During his term of nezirus, he loosened the grip of his passions and desires. That allowed him to work on his self-awareness so that he can recognize – as no other can – how much is too much, or too little – for his spiritual and physical well-being.

This necessary exercise in self-restraint and pulling back from enjoyment of the world comes with a price, which is also acknowledged in our pesukim. Every nazir brings a chatas/ sin-offering as one of his offerings. In the course of his nezirus he loses the opportunity to perform some mitzvos. He cannot assist in the burial of his relatives (because he vowed not to become tameh); he must forego the wine of kiddush and havdalah (having vowed against the consumption of wine). If his nezirus-exercise accomplishes what he designed it to do, he is praiseworthy. The benefit exceeds the cost.

Yet, he must address the fact that he indeed paid a price. (This is similar to the situation of a person who is disturbed by the contents of a dream, and finds it calming to fast, as he would any day of the week. He may fast even on Shabbos. But he is instructed to fast another day for having fasted, thus denying himself his usual forms of oneg Shabbos.)

The chatas of the nazir deals with this. The nazir brings korbanos similar to those of the nesi’im / princes at the inauguration of the mishkan. The inauguration-offerings of each nasi included three varieties: olah, chatas, and shelamim. The word for inauguration is chinuch, which also means “education.” Nezirus is an exercise in self-education. It attempts to teach its student how to temper an unwanted haughty spirit and diminish inflated material desires. The appropriate offering is therefore the offering of chinuch.

Shabbat shalom

Shavuot 5777

May 29, 2017

The Meshech Chochmah writes in connection to the Festival of Shavuot:

” We must know that the giving the Torah on Shavuot was not only for the religious rituals, but also for the most reasonable practices, such as kindness to the poor and the stranger. For without faith in God, the human being becomes like a savage beast, showing no pity on even his own father… Therefore, it says that on the Festival of Shavuot you should celebrate the giving of the Torah, not just for the religious rituals, but also for the rational precepts, for they, too, are only made possible because, “I am the Lord your God.”

This short piece contains an extremely pessimistic vision of human nature – that left to our own devices, we devolve into cruelty and selfishness. But he also is making a radical theological claim: that without faith in God, there is no stable foundation for basic social ethics.

Is this really true? Do we not know all kinds of secular social systems that have elaborate codes of laws that maintain social order and enforce standards of moral decency? Most modern states manage, very effectively, to outlaw murder and theft without any particular reference to God.

How does this work? A social collective forms, with no particular moral code. They seek to establish laws that everyone can agree on, that will maintain order and safety. They quickly outlaw all extreme forms of violence, create property rights, and enforce contracts. These forms of justice require no higher faith -only the mutual interests that form a social contract. Because nobody wants to live in fear of murder or theft.

But what these social contracts do not inevitably deal with is care for the most needy or vulnerable members of society. They do not necessarily legislate care for the poor. Because not everybody is poor, so not everybody agrees that this is a necessary investment. And if not everyone (or at least a sizable majority) agrees , then in a legal system based on social contract, we cannot obligate compliance. So charity comes to be thought of as completely voluntary.

Everybody agrees that charity is good and just. Everybody recognises that feeding the hungry is a wonderfully noble thing to do. But, they think, nobody can be forced to do it. And so, in time, nobody does it. People speak of poverty with eloquence and compassion, but nobody is actually obliged to give to the poor.

Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Poverty is one of those social ills we can condemn with our reason, but leave completely unattended by our laws. We build up a great society, so orderly and so civilized… but the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves.

This is what the Meshech Chochmah was worried about when he warned of the savage beast that we could too easily become. That is why he believed that we needed God to help us turn charity from an option into an obligation.

Perhaps that is what the Torah is worried about as well, when it disrupts the serene flow of our journey through sacred time with an abrupt reminder of the hungry poor. For what do our holidays amount to if we only see them as a set of festive rituals and synagogue gatherings? How well will our Shavuot be observed if we forget that the Torah that we are celebrating not only proscribes religious ritual, but commands social justice?

These sacred festivals are summoning us not only to worship, but to national repentance and personal sacrifice.

Chag Sameach


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