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

Ki Tissa

March 16, 2017

In our sedra the building of the Mishkan is followed by the law of Shabbat whereas in next week’s sedra the order is reversed, it is Shabbat followed by Mishkan.

The Meshech Chochmah addresses this issue in his own individual way in his comment on 35:2.

The Torah juxtaposes Shabbos and the construction of the mishkan in two nearby parshios. In Vayakhel Shabbos takes pride of place, followed by the mishkan. Earlier, in Ki Tissa, however, order was reversed, with Shabbos following on the heels of the mishkan.

Constructing the mishkan does not fit neatly into one of the other known categories of mitzvos that come into conflict with the laws of Shabbos. On the one hand, the avodah itself trumps the restrictions of Shabbos. Parts of the avodah that require the performance of one of the 39 types of forbidden labor go ahead on Shabbos just as they do during the week.

Building the mishkan, however, is not at all comparable to the avodah. The mishkan is the place where the avodah takes place, but the sundry procedures in putting it together are preparatory to the avodah, but they are not the avodah itself.

On the other hand, it is well established that procedures that prepare for the avodah, but are not part of the avodah per se, do not override the strictures of Shabbos.

We might be tempted to see mishkan construction, then, as a set of preparatory activities that facilitate the avodah, but do not rise to the level of avodah that can set aside the prohibitions of Shabbos.

We would be incorrect in making that argument. While preparatory activities for other parts of the avodah cannot be performed at the price of violation of a Torah precept, we could argue that the mishkan project is exceptional. There is no escaping the presence of Shabbos in the operation of the avodah; the avodah goes on as usual. Because the mishkan regularly displays business-as-usual on Shabbos, we could easily reason that its very construction also continues unabated on Shabbos.

Let us develop the thought. Why is it that Shabbos seems to lose out in asserting itself against the avodah? The answer might well be that the mishkan itself complements and enlarges upon the essential themes of Shabbos! Shabbos reminds us that the world came into existence only because Hashem created it ex nihilo. By its very nature, the mishkan unequivocally states that Hashem’s Will sustains the world, and His providence directs the course of all events. Because His Shechinah resides in the mishkan, we respond to that Presence with unceasing service of Hashem, and with the symbolic references to enlightenment, to sustenance, to connection with Him. It should not be surprising that some preparatory activities to the avodah, e.g. the cutting of the barley for the omer offering the next morning, do in fact push aside considerations of Shabbos.

The avodah doesn’t so much ignore the restrictions of Shabbos as it makes their case in a different way.
Why, then, do we not treat construction of the mishkan the same way? Why does our parshah tell us, according to the way Chazal understand it, that the mishkan-construction project ground to a halt on Shabbos?

The mishkan speaks the same language as Shabbos only when the Shechinah takes up residence within it, and the homage we pay it then teaches the lessons we mentioned above. The Shechinah does not make that move, as it were, until the mishkan is completed. Before that time, building the mishkan is on a lesser plane in relation to Shabbos than preparatory activities of the mishkan after the mishkan’s inauguration.

It was only after the sin of the Golden Calf, however, that the Shechinah would be localized in a small area in the mishkan. Prior to that tragic event, the Presence of the Divine was felt all over. “Every place that you mention my Name, I will come to you and bless you.”

No mishkan was needed to proclaim the reality of G-d through His Presence. Hashem was equally accessible all over. The mishkan’s function was different than what it was after the sin. It was to act simply as a place to serve the Shechinah that was manifest throughout the community. At that point in time, the process of building the mishkan was as much an “avodah” – and not just a necessary precursor – than what we would call mishkan later.

In Ki Tissa, prior to the chet ha-egel, the Torah places the building of the mishkan before Shabbos, because it, too, – and not the actual avodah – overrode the laws of forbidden labor on Shabbos. Only after the chet, when the Shechinah restricted itself to a much smaller area, was a completed, functioning mishkan necessary to house the Shechinah, and for that Presence to supplement the truth that Shabbos declares. Therefore, in our parshah, Shabbos is listed first.

Shabbat shalom


March 9, 2017

In this weeks Sedra, called Tetzaveh, we find the unusual phrase, you command the Jewish, not Me (Hashem) as it were. Why?

You [Moshe] shall command the Bnei Yisrael that they shall take for you pure, pressed oil for illumination (27:20)

Meshech Chochmah explains: We read last week about the main kelim of the mishkan. They included a menorah and a shulchan. The mishkan served as a model for other central places of avodah, including both batei mikdash. Thus, both of them also contained a shulchan and a menorah.

At least the second Temple did. Shlomo’s, however, had multiple menorahs and multiple shulchanos. This begs for an explanation. If increasing the number was such a good idea, why did we revert to the single menorah model for the second bais hamikdosh?

An answer may begin with our pasuk. Why do the people take the oil specifically for Moshe, as implied by the words “for you?” The mitzvah was not given only to him. Why is its purpose or benefit linked to him? We might find an answer in the position of the Ibn Ezra regarding the times at which HaShem spoke to Moshe.

We are aware of the limitation that Chazal put on Hashem’s availability to Moshe. This experience, they say, was a daytime phenomenon. Hashem did not speak to Moseh at night. The Ibn Ezra, however, does not see this as linked to the time of day so much as to the presence of light. When the night is well-illuminated through lamps, Hashem would speak to Moshe as surely as He did during ordinary daylight hours.

For Moshe, then, the light of the menorah had great meaning and purpose, which was not shared by anyone else. Man’s mind is clearer when he is surrounded by light, which puts him in a better, more joyous mood. Simchah is a precondition to any kind of prophecy. Thus, the menorah’s light enabled him to engage in direct conversation with HaShem during the times when natural light was unavailable.

After the death of Moshe, the menorah’s light served no direct purpose as a provider of physical illumination – not to Hashem, and not to anyone else. Rather, Chazal tell us that it offered testimony to the rest of the world that the Divine Presence was comfortable resting with the Jewish people. When God cherished them, the ner maaravi burned the entire day, after the other lamps had already gone out. This was a powerful statement by Hashem that He resided, as it were, with His people.

Assuming that after the death of Moshe the menorah’s function became entirely bound up with representing the kavod of the Shechinah, we can understand Shlomo’s decision – at least according to the opinion that both the extra menoros and shulchanos were fully functional.
The mishkan’s dimensions were 10x30x10 amos, for a total of 3000 cubic amos. Shlomo’s heichal, however, was 20x60x30, or 36000 cubic amos, twelve times the volume of the mishkan. If one menorah sufficed for the much smaller structure, twelve would be needed to represent the kavod of the much greater space filled by the Divine Presence.

In fact, Shlomo did not bring the number to twelve. He added ten of his own, to yield a total of only eleven. He did this to retain symmetry. The ten he added formed two groups of five; each group was placed to one side or another of Moshe’s menorah. Had Shlomo insisted on full proportionality, he would have been forced to place five on one side and six on the other, leaving the arrangement unbalanced.

In the avodah of the shulchan, we find that the Torah insists that it be “opposite” the menorah. From this Shlomo understood the link between menorah and shulchan. It followed that each additional menorah that Shlomo provided had to be associated with an additional shulchan.
All of this thinking was mooted by the destruction of Shlomo’s beis hamikdosh. The second bayis would not know of the open display of Divine Presence of the first. There would be no need for extra menoros or extra shulchanos. The configuration reverted to the essential design dictated by the original mishkan.

Shabbat shalom


March 2, 2017

The staves shall be in the rings of the Aron. They shall not be removed from it. (25:15)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that Chazal tell us that removing the badim from the aron is halachically forbidden. Lke other prohibitions, it is punishable by lashes. Now, the aron is not the only major appliance of the mishkan that comes with staves. Both the altar and the table were equipped with staves. Regarding those two, however, the Torah only specifies that the staves be in place while they are being moved. Apparently, removing their staves at other times is not objectionable. Why are the staves of the aron different?

A midrash tells us that the Aron is identified with the Crown of Torah. Whereas not everyone is even eligible to wear the crown of kehunah or of monarchy, the Torah crown is available to anyone who wants to crown himself with it, simply for the asking. Thus there is constancy to the aron not shared by the other kelim.

Anyone, then, can have a relationship with Torah. But practical considerations can curtail the talmid chacham’s career. To thrive, the talmid chacham requires support from others. This may take the form of donations, or of creating investment opportunities for the him. This support is alluded to in our pasuk by the staves – the items though which the journey of the Torah becomes possible.

The gemara notes that in commanding the building of the aron, both the singular and the plural form of the verb is used. The Torah alludes to the roles of the few and many. By using both forms, the Torah suggests that the single talmid chacham should be assisted by the larger group of townspeople ready to offer their assistance. This universal support of Torah knows no restriction or limit. It must come all of the time; the staves representing support of the Torah must never be removed.

We can also suggest a different approach from the one we have taken till this point. It builds on a well-known position of the Rambam. He writes that the menorah in the beis hamikdosh was lit not only at night, but in the morning as well. This is readily understandable. The light functioned as a reminder to the world of the presence of the Shechinah in the midst of the Jewish people. Its role was not to provide illumination. “Does G-d need light?”

Lighting the menorah each morning drove home this point. The menorah would provide no useful illumination during the brightness of the day. People who understood that also comprehended that its function did not change at night. Just as it did not serve to provide illumination by day, its role was not to provide useful light at night either. The daytime lighting impressed upon us that we needed to look elsewhere for the symbolic significance of the mitzvah; it was not to be found in the practical role of providing light.

The staves of the aron stand in a similar position. When the aron was at rest, they served no clear practical function. From this we realized that even when the aron was transported from place to place, the staves did not contribute functionally. As Chazal teach us, the aron carried its bearers – not the opposite! As the symbolic abode of the One Who carries the universe, nothing needs to carry Him. The badim played no part in making it possible to bear the weight of the aron as it travelled.

Shabbat shalom


February 23, 2017

In this week’s Sedra, the Meshech Chochmah deals with the relationship between the mishpatim – civil laws, many of which are necessary and logical and shared by other societies and the Chukkim and ritual laws peculiar to Judaism.

He sheds light on the old question of why the obvious, rational laws are also in the Torah.

” Moshe came and related to the nation all the words of Hashem, and all the mishpatim.”

The entire nations responded, “All the words that Hashem spoke, we will do.” (24:3)

He writes: Are mishpatim, the laws of civil conduct, not included in the “words of Hashem” that Moshe received from Hashem, and now conveyed to the people? Why are mishpatim singled out for special treatment?

Not all mitzvos require “acceptance” in the sense of agreeing to do what we ordinarily would not. It is much easier to make the human case for observance of some mitzvos than others. We can appreciate the distinction by looking at the laws incumbent upon non-Jews – the seven Noachide laws. One of those is called dinim, identified with a large number of laws of civil conduct that Man’s rational sense tells him are essential to a stable society. Laws about commerce, labor, contracts, etc. are part of the backbone of an orderly collection of human beings.

Rational people understand that they are indispensible; people generally do not see enforcement of these laws – what in our parshah the Torah calls mishpatim – as encroaching on their civil liberties and individual rights. Non-Jews are expected to enforce these laws – but nothing more. While they might agree on the morality of some actions and the immorality of others, this does not give them the moral right to enforce this thinking on those reluctant to join with them. Such moral compunctions should remain within the province of individual free choice. Moral arguments beyond those which all agree upon should not by foisted upon the unwilling, even by a majority. No person has the right to dictate morality to another beyond that which God Himself demands.

Halachah pertaining to Klal Yisrael, however, does not accept this thinking, even though it is fundamentally sound. The nature of the interconnectedness of all Jews creates a strong argument for enforcement of all laws of the Torah, beyond the dinim that all agree upon. “All Jews are guarantors of each other,” Chazal tell us. This means that any Jew’s misconduct impacts upon the quality of life of every other Jew. The intuitive laws included under the rubric of dinim include the understanding that no person has the right to damage another, or his property. Because of the special relationship of Hashem with the Jewish people, the violation of any precept of the Torah is the equivalent of breaking a neighbor’s window. The transgression of any one Jew damages the spiritual well-being of all other Jews. What otherwise would be part of the personal domain of choice of every person now becomes an item of collective interest and concern.
In the pesukim that follow, the Torah’s description of the Bnei Yisrael’s acceptance of mitzvos changes subtly. At first, they say, “All the words that Hashem spoke, we will do.” There is no mention of mishpatim, of the laws whose necessity is universally recognized, and that were explicitly mentioned in the preceding phrase. A few pesukim later,however, they attach the famous words “naaseh v’nishma” to “all that Hashem spoke” – without further references to “words” or to “mishpatim.”

Here is what happened. In our pasuk, the Bnei Yisrael hear both the “words” of Hashem and the mishpatim. They react to the former, which mean the mitzvos that we obey only because we heard them from Him, but not because we understand their importance even without being commanded. They react by accepting them in particular; the mishpatim, they believe, don’t require any special acceptance. They are part of the civilized human condition. The “words” of Hashem, however, they eagerly accept. That is, each man and woman accepted them as their personal, individual obligation. They did not see themselves meddling in the spiritual choices and affairs of others.
Before we get to the other verse that speaks of the Bnei Yisrael accepting Hashem’s orders, the people are readied and prepared for a covenant. Moshe will formally inaugurate the bris by soon sprinkling them with the blood of offerings. But first, presumably, they learn about the implications of that bris.

They learn that the relationship between God and His people is such that our fates and destinies are all interdependent. They understand that His providential management of the affairs of the nation depends on the spiritual level of the nation as a whole, not on the righteousness of individuals alone. Any one person’s transgression, therefore, impacts upon every other person’s life. In other words, all the other mitzvos of the Torah have now become similar to mishpatim. Just as the latter are a communal responsibility because violations of laws of theft, bailments, torts, etc. directly threaten the well-being of others, so are all other commandments. The community as a whole becomes a stakeholder in the religious observance of every Jew.

Thus, when they react to the new bris, they announce that they are accepting all the words of Hashem ­–equally, and without differentiating between them. Moreover, the acceptance has now moved from the arena of personal conscience to the protection of the entire nation.

Shabbat shalom


February 16, 2017

On the third day, Hashem will descend on Har Sinai. You shall set boundaries for the people all around, saying, “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge. Whoever touches the mountain will die. A hand shall not touch it…for he shall not live. Upon an extended sound of the shofar, they may ascend the mountain. (19:13)

Based on the Talmud, the Meshech Chochmah explains why as soon as the Torah imposes the restriction against touching the mountain, it tells us just when this restriction would be lifted. This is unusual , as this is not the way the Torah deals with the other restriction linked to the giving of the Torah.

The people were also told that they were to separate from their wives beginning a few days before Matan Torah. This restriction as well would come to an end at some tine after the conclusion of the maamad ha-nivchar.

The people are eventually told, “Return to your tents” – but this is recorded in the text only after the Ten Commandments and much more. Why is the Torah much quicker to write about the relaxing of the ban against touching the mountain?

A simple answer is that lifting the restriction against contact with the mountain is a matter of proper etiquette. The Torah used harsh language in conveying the ban; it spoke of the certainty of people dying. Derech eretz demands that a note like that should not be sustained. The Torah immediately changes its tone by speaking of the lifting of the restriction that carries such dire consequences.

In a sense, this begs the question. Why was a transgression of the touching ban treated so severely in the first place?

We begin our answer with a basic observation: A chief concern of the Torah is the eradication of any idolatrous thoughts or tendencies from our people. Part of our utter rejection of avodah zarah is the non-physicality of G-d. It was important to stress to the Bnei Yisrael that in their encounter with HAShem at Sinai, there was no physical element. Hashem was not “seen;” He did not take on any physical appearance or form. He did not because he can not! Form, appearance are related to substance, boundaries, dimensions – all elements that simply do not and cannot relate to His Being.

A corollary of the above is that the quality of holiness natively resides in only one Being – namely, Hashem Himself. There is nothing in the created world – nothing – that is inherently holy other than He. Hashem wished that impressed upon the Bnei Yisrael at the time of matan Torah. It was crucial that they not have any mental space in which to think that the Torah was given on a particular mountain because of some inherent kedushah that it possessed. The Torah therefore presented to the people a matched set of realities. On the one hand, the mountain was treated as holy. On the other, they were immediately informed that the holiness – a holiness that was strictly enforced – was temporary. As soon as the shofar sounded, they would be permitted to trample the mountain to their hearts’ content. Moreover, even their animals would be free to graze upon it, and otherwise treat it in an undignified manner, as animals do.

Clearly, if the mountain could be treated so shabbily afterwards, its holiness could not be regarded as inherent and essential. The people learned that its kedushah was not intrinsic, but extrinsic – it came about because of the Shechinah’s presence upon it. As soon as the Shechinah departed, the kedushah vanished.

This treatment carried over into the beis hamikdosh – a place with much more lasting kedushah! It was certainly important here to underscore that there was no intrinsic spiritual quality in the building. So we find that those who are tame’im ritually impure – even those who are afflicted with tumas meis, the most severe form of tumah – may nonetheless touch the outside surface of the building. This reinforced the idea that the kedushah was a function of the luchos and the Shechinah that resided inside the building, and filled it with kedushah while they were there.

The lesson is that kedushah of a lasting form is never a function of God’s actions – and it goes without saying that it is no magic, mystical property that is simply inherent in some physical item. Where kedushah is caused by Him, it is simply a consequence of His presence, and disappears as that presence is removed. The shofar sounded to inform the people that the Shechinah had left the mountain. It’s kedushah immediately vanished, and it became no more holy than any rock pile. Longer lasting kedushah is created only by the actions of human beings, such as the kedushah of the beis hamikdosh.

It therefore becomes necessary to retool our understanding of a later pasuk. It is usually translated as, “Moshe said to Hashem: ‘The people cannot ascend Har Sinai, for You have warned us, saying, “Cordon off the mountain and sanctify it.”’ We understand, however, that Moshe did nothing to make the mountain holy. Its holiness was entirely a function of the presence of the Shechinah. Rather, the pasuk must be understood as referring to Hashem. “You have warned us to cordon off the mountain so that You will come and descend upon it.” That will create a temporary holiness on Har Sinai, one that will depart whenever the Shechinah decides to leave.

Shabbat shalom