Behar 5779

The Mountain and the rested Land[1]

וידבר יקוק אל-משה בהר סיני לאמר: דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם כי תבואו אל הארץ אשר אני נותן לכם ושבתה הארץ שבת ליקוק
Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you arrive at the land which I give to you, the land shall rest, a Sabbath for Hashem[2]

This week’s parsha begins by introducing the mitzvah of shemittah, the Sabbatical year. Once every seven years the land of Israel is to lie fallow, and the fruits become ownerless. What’s unusual with this mitzvah is it’s introduced by specifying that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai. This specification isn’t done with any other mitzvah. What does shemittah have to do with Mount Sinai? Rashi says[3] to teach us that just like the general principles as well as the details of the mitzvah of shemittah were taught at Mount Sinai, the same is true for all mitzvos. However, this is only the opinion of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Yishmael holds that all other mitzvos had their general principles taught at Mount Sinai, and their details were taught at the Tent of Meeting[4] [5]. What then does he learn from the specification of Mount Sinai with the mitzvah of shemittah? As well, even according to Rabbi Akiva, why was shemittah chosen to specifically teach us this idea?

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Emor / Sefiras HaOmer 5779

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Receiving the munn and offering the Omer[1]

דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם כי-תבאו אל-הארץ אשר אני נתן לכם וקצרתם את-קצירה והבאתם את-עמר ראשית קצירכם אל הכהן: והניף את-העמר לפני יקוק לרצנכם ממחרת השבת יניפנו הכהן
Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the land that I give to you, and you harvest its produce, you shall bring the Omer, the first of your harvest, to the Kohen. He shall wave the Omer before Hashem, to make you desirable[2]; the day after Pesach[2] the Kohen shall wave it.

וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת מיום הביאכם את-עמר התנופה שבע שבתות תמימת תהיינה: עד ממחרת השבת השביעת תספרו חמשים יום והקרבתם מנחה חדשה ליקוק
You shall count for yourselves, from the day after Pesach, from the day you brought the waved Omer, seven weeks, which shall be perfect. Until after the seventh week, count fifty days, and then offer a new flour offering to Hashem[3]

The Omer flour offering which was brought the day after Pesach is highly unusual. An omer is literally a volume of flour, also known as a tenth of an eiphah[4]. All other flour offerings don’t use the word omer to describe their quantity, and indeed simply say a tenth of an eiphah[5]. Why then does this offering use the term Omer? More than that, this offering is known by name by its volume of flour. Why is it called the Omer offering? Further, there’s a mitzvah to count every day up to fifty days after Pesach. This mitzvah is called Sefiras HaOmer, literally the counting of the Omer. The whole point of the mitzvah is the anticipation of the festival of Shavuos[6], which culminates the fifty-day count. Why then is the mitzvah to specifically count “from the Omer”?

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Kedoshim 5779

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Sibling love, disgrace, and quarrels[1]

ואיש אשר-יקח את-אחתו בת-אביו או בת-אמו וראה את-ערותה והיא תראה את ערותו חסד הוא ונכרתו לעיני בני עמם ערות אחתו גלה עונו ישא
A man who will take his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother, and will see her nakedness, and she will see his nakedness, it is chesed, and they will be cut off from before the eyes of the nation. For he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall carry his sin[2]

The Torah, in its list of the forbidden relationships, gives the incestuous relationship with one’s sister a special descriptor. The union is referred to as chesed. Normally, this word refers to loving kindness. It seems highly out of place in this context[3]. Rashi therefore says[4] that in this context it’s the Aramaic word for disgrace. Such a union is a disgrace to both parties. However, why did the Torah use this unusual word, instead of the normal Hebrew word for disgrace? Rashi therefore brings the homiletic interpretation[5], that this verse is alluding to the answer to an age-old question.

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Acharei Mos 5779

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The constant struggle[1]

ואל אשה בנדת טומאתה לא תקרב וגו’‏
Do not approach a woman in her impure state of niddah[2]

The gemarra relates[3] a conversation between a Sadducee[4], someone who rejected Rabbinic Judaism, and the Sages of his time. He asked Rav Kahana, how could a man and woman be trusted to be alone together when the wife is a niddah[5]? Once she has her period, she and her husband are forbidden to each other until she immerses in a mikveh at the right time. He asked is it possible for a fire to kindle and not burn?

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Metzora 5779

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The proper mode of conduct[1]

וצוה הכהן ולקח למטהר שתי-צפרים חיות טהורות ועץ ארז ושני תולעת ואזב
The Kohen shall command [as follows]: he should take for the one seeking purification two live, kosher birds, a rod[2] from a cedar tree, a thread of crimson wool, and hyssop[3]

This week’s parsha, much like last week’s, deals mostly with the laws of tzara’as, most commonly translated as leprosy. While it may be a whitish skin condition, in reality it’s a totally unrelated spiritual malady[4] with physical symptoms. Chazal tell us[5] that someone who contracts tzara’as, known as a Metzora[6], usually committed a certain sin[7]. One example is that of haughtiness. As a result of his sin, he is infected with a disturbing skin condition, and has to have his status established by a Kohen. If the Kohen determines he is spiritually impure, then he is. The opposite is also true.

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Tazria 5779

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Purifying our ways and ourselves[1]

דבר אל-בני ישראל לאמר אשה כי תזירע וילדה זכר וטמאה שבעת ימים כימי נדת דותה תטמא: וביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו: ושלשים יום ושלשת ימים תשב בדמי טהרה וגו’‏
Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: A woman who conceives and gives birth to a baby boy will be ritually impure for seven days; like the days of her monthly period she will be impure. On the eighth day [the baby’s] flesh shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days [the mother] shall remain in her state of purity…[2]

This week’s parsha deals with many types of ritual impurity. It begins by describing what happens when a woman gives birth to a baby boy. She becomes impure for a week, upon which she can then immerse in a mikveh, becoming pure again. Her baby has a bris milah on the eighth day. The Torah then says that for thirty-three days the woman has a presumed status of ritual purity. The Torah then proceeds to describe what happens when she gives birth to a baby girl. What’s unusual is the Torah mentions the mitzvah of bris milah here, of all places. It seemingly has no relevance to a parsha dealing with ritual purity. Why is this the place to put it? As well, why was this mitzvah sandwiched in between the verses describing the woman’s ritual purity status, interrupting the flow of the verses?

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Shemini 5779

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Misapplied desires[1]

ותצא אש מלפני יקוק ותאכל אותם וימתו לפני יקוק
A fire went forth from before Hashem, and consumed [Nadav and Avihu], and they died before Hashem[2]

At the conclusion of the Mishkan’s inauguration, the people were beset with tragedy. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s children, who were leaders of the Jewish people, died. They had volunteered an unrequested fire offering to Hashem, and perished instantly. The consequences of their actions seem too severe for their “crime”. Indeed, what they did seems meritorious. They were displaying their devotion to Hashem, and their joy at the opportunity to express it. As a result, many explanations[3] are given for what their real crime was.

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Vayikra / Zachor 5779

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Developing love for Hashem[1]

דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם אדם כי-יקריב מכם קרבן ליקוק וגו’‏
Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: “A person, when they [want to] bring an offering to Hashem…”[2]

We find many mitzvos that aren’t outright obligations. Instead, the Torah left it up to the volunteering of the individual. For example, with the donations to the Mishkan, the Torah specified[3] for each person to give as much as they wanted. We also see this by voluntary offerings, such as with the Olah (elevation), Shelamim (peace), or Menachos (flour) offerings. There’s no absolute obligation to bring these offerings, but they’re available for those who want to take advantage. How much terumah a person wants to give to the Kohen is essentially their choice. These types of mitzvos require clarification. If they are part of our Divine service, why weren’t their performance made obligatory, and their quality and quantity well-defined? If they are not part of our Divine service, why are they even taught in the Torah?

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Pekudei 5779

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The foreshadowed clock[1]

כי ענן על-המשכן יומם ואש תהיה לילה בו לעיני כל-בית-ישראל בכל-מסעיהם
A cloud [will be] upon the Miskan by day, and a [pillar of][2] fire will be on it by night, for the eyes of all the houses of Israel, for all of their journeys[3]

The last verse of the book of Exodus concludes all the hard work that went into the Mishkan. The purpose of such a structure was to have G-d’s Presence on Earth. It was to be a place where Hashem was palpable, as much as could be possible in this physical world. A representation of Hashem appeared upon the Mishkan in the form of a cloud. It appeared after the erection of the Mishkan, to show the Jewish people that their construction efforts had paid off. The verse also describes that at night the cloud was replaced by a pillar of fire. However, the verse describes it in the future tense: a pillar of fire will be on it by night. Why isn’t it written in the present tense, as that was the reality for the Jews at that time? Further, why does the verse say that this fire was for the Jews’ journeys? It should have said: “for all their encampments”[4].

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Vayakhel / Shekalim 5779

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Universal labor[1]

ויקהל משה את-כל-עדת בני ישראל ויאמר אלהם אלה הדברים אשר-צוה יקוק לעשת אתם: ששת ימים תעשה מלאכה וביום השביעי יהיה לכם קדש שבת שבתון וגו’‏
Moshe congregated the assembly of Israel and said to them: “These are the matters to which Hashem commanded, to perform them: Six days your work shall be done, and the seventh day shall be Holy, a shabbos of rest…[2]

This week’s parsha begins with a strange combination of verses. First, we are told that what follows are the commands which Hashem expects us to perform. Then, we are warned against performing work on shabbos. This is telling us not to do something. This anomaly forces us to read the verses in their proper context. This parsha details the vessels and materials that went into the creation of the Mishkan. What this verse is referring to is that the Jews were adjured to construct the Mishkan and all that went into it. However, the verse is followed by another command: to observe shabbos properly by refraining from work. We learn from here that the very constructive activities that go into the creation of the Mishkan are the forms of creative labor which are forbidden on shabbos[3].

This understanding by our Sages goes further than expected. Not only are the acts of construction for the Mishkan forbidden on shabbos, they are the sole criteria for defining what the Torah means by “work”. That is, anything that wasn’t involved in the creation of the Mishkan, is permissible on shabbos. Furthermore, acts similar to those involved in the Mishkan, if they are lacking the essential characteristics of that particular form of labor, are permitted on a Torah level (although usually forbidden Rabbinically). For example: digging a hole in the ground for agricultural purposes is forbidden, as that is what they did for the Mishkan. However, digging a hole to retrieve and use the dirt, is permissible (again, on a Torah level). This begs the question: if the purpose of shabbos was to give us a day of rest, why did Hashem make the forbidden labors dependent on what was necessary for the Mishkan, regardless of their necessary level of exertion? Why is it so dependent that the same act, with the slightest of changes, can change from absolutely forbidden to completely permissible?

It is revealed in many sources, some of them exegetical[4], some of them more esoteric[5] and Kabbalistic[6], that the Mishkan wasn’t just a portable Temple structure for the Jews’ travels in the wilderness. It was a microcosm of the universe, and of all the sub-universes within, both the spiritual and the physical. Its physical structure was aligned with all the aspects of the spiritual and physical universe. Not only that, but Betzalel, the chief architect of the Mishkan, used the very acts that went into the creation of the universe to create the Mishkan[7].

What’s the essence of the day of rest known as shabbos? It’s testimony that there’s a Creator in this world[8]. The Torah tells us[9] that He created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. This “rest” meant cessation from creative activities. By following suit throughout or lives, by working throughout the week, being involved in creative tasks, and resting on the seventh day, we are mimicking our Creator. By doing so we are demonstrating our belief that Hashem created the universe.

If so, Hashem wants us to rest from the very creative activities that He used to create the universe. Only then will there be proper testimony through observing shabbos. However, how could we ever know which creative acts were used to create and form the universe? We learn it from the Mishkan. It’s form and structure are a microcosm of the universe, and it was constructed the same way as the universe. By studying and observing the creative labor that went into the Mishkan, we can deduce how to properly observe shabbos. Doing so will testify to all that there is a Creator, who rested on the seventh day.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Exodus 35:1-2

[2] Exodus loc. cit.

[3] Mechilta ad. loc. See Ramban and Malbim ad. loc.

[4] Shemos Rabbah 33:4; Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei § 2. See also Megillah 10b

[5] Nefesh HaChaim 1:4

[6] Rabbeinu Bachaye to Exodus 25:9; Shnei Luchos HaBris Torah Shebiksav Terumah, Vayakhel and Pekudei

[7] Berachos 55a

[8] Mechilta to Exodus 20:14

[9] Genesis Chapter 1