Bamidbar 5777

Rashi’s Royal Revelation[1]

ויקח משה ואהרן את האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות
Moshe and Aharon took these men who had been designated by [their] names[2]

Rashi comments פרש”י
These men: These twelve princes את האנשים האלה: את שנים עשר נשיאים הללו
That were designated: To him [Moshe], here, by their names אשר נקבו: לו כאן בשמות

Parshas Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers, earns the book its name by beginning with a census of the Jewish people. This is one of many censuses that took place in the wilderness. Hashem commanded Moshe to count all the Jewish men above the age of twenty, those that would be suitable to serve in the army[1]. The leaders of the twelve tribes, described as princes, were appointed to help with the census. After listing the twelve princes, one for each tribe, the Torah states that Moshe and Aharon took them for their appointed task and began the count.

Rashi, the eleventh century biblical commentator, is unquestionably the most important and influential of the early authorities[2] on the Torah. His commentary is found in every edition of the Torah and has spawned dozens of supercommentaries whose task are solely to explain what Rashi meant. At the beginning of the Torah[3], Rashi describes the intention of his commentary by writing: “I came only for the peshat, the plain simple meaning of the words and verses”. Rashi only comments on the Torah when there is some difficulty in understanding the verse simply, or in order to correct a faulty first impression.

Given this introduction, Rashi’s comments on the above verse are puzzling. The verse is very self-evident; what is the need for clarification? What’s more puzzling is Rashi didn’t seem to add anything. After listing the twelve princes, the verse says that Moshe took “these men”, and Rashi tells us that it’s referring to “these twelve princes”. The verse says the men that were taken were the men that were designated by their names, and Rashi just adds the words “to him, here”. Meaning, the verse is saying that the men that were taken were the men that were designated to Moshe, here, by their names. What is gained by these additions?

The Mizrachi[4] tries to explain Rashi’s motivation. The verse could have simply stated “Moshe and Aharon took them”, why did the Torah add the words “these men”? Since the Torah added these words, Rashi was worried we would misinterpret the verse to be referring to some other men. This is why Rashi comments, to assure us that the verse is still discussing the above-mentioned princes. The problem with this approach is twofold. One, how does Rashi know the Torah is still referring to the princes? Maybe it really is referring to some other men. Even if it is referring to the princes, then why didn’t the verse say, “Moshe and Aharon took them”? What then was added by the words “these men”?

The Gur Aryeh[5] has a different approach to explain Rashi’s intent. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, it makes them sound like ordinary people[6]. Rashi wants to stress that these weren’t ordinary people; they were the twelve princes of Israel. Again, if this is the correct approach to Rashi, why did the Torah refer to them as men? Further, the verse uses the words אנשים, which Rashi elsewhere states[7] usually refers to men of importance. So why would I have misunderstood the verse?

A third approach to Rashi avoids all of these issues. This isn’t the first time princes were mentioned in the Torah. Before the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the Torah describes[8] the various contributions the people made. It says[9] the princes brought “shoham stones” for the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. However, the Torah doesn’t clarify which princes. Elsewhere, the Torah says[10] that the names of the twelve tribes are inscribed on these stones. Rashi names[11] which tribes, and lists Yosef as one tribe and also lists the tribe of Levi. Presumably, the princes who brought the stones were of the same tribes as those inscribed. However, the tribes listed in this week’s parsha are different than the ones listed by Rashi by the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, Yosef is listed as two tribes: his sons Efraim and Menashe. To keep the number of princes twelve, a prince for the tribe of Levi isn’t mentioned.

This is exactly Rashi’s point. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, Rashi is stressing the fact that it’s these princes, not the ones mentioned earlier. When the Torah says that they were the men who “were designated by name”, Rashi stresses that they were designated to Moshe here by name. Meaning, the Torah is referring to the princes designated here in this week’s parsha, not the ones by the Mishkan. The need to make this distinction is because this is the first time that Efraim and Menashe are considered to be their own tribes. This required Levi not to be counted, in order to keep the number of tribes at twelve.

This is just one example of the extreme depth that can be found in Rashi’s commentary. Sometimes a tiny addition to a verse can make a huge difference in understanding. Whenever Rashi doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the verse, in reality he’s helping us tremendously. This case of the princes teaches us the significance of every word in Rashi’s commentary.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on the book What’s Bothering Rashi, by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek. The piece on this week’s parsha can be read online at http://www.aish.com/tp/i/wbr/48930822.html

[2] Numbers 1:17

[3] ibid 1:3

[4] Known in Hebrew as the Rishonim

[5] Genesis 3:8

[6] ad. loc., one of the above mentioned supercommentaries on Rashi

[7] ad. loc., the Maharal of Prague’s commentary on Rashi

[8] Rabbi Hartman in his commentary to Gur Aryeh explains that we may have thought that they were not chosen for this task because of their nobility, so Rashi wants to stress that this was exactly why they were chosen

[9] Numbers 13:3

[10] Exodus 35:22-29

[11] ibid verse 27

[12] ibid 28:9-10

[13] to verse 10

 

Behar-Bechukosai 5777

Rabbi Reznick requested that I remove all divrei Torah that I wrote up from him. He didn’t want them in a public forum. If you would like to see a copy from this week’s parsha, please email contact@parshaponders.com.

Emor 5777

Gleanings from the parsha[1]

ובקצרכם את-קציר ארצכם לא-תכלה פאת שדך בקצרך ולקט קצירך לא תלקט לעני ולגר תעזב אתם אני יקוק אלקיכם
When you reap the harvest of your land, don’t finish off the corners of your fields as you reap, and don’t collect the gleanings of your harvest; leave them for the poor and the convert, I am Hashem your G-d[2]

The end of this week’s parsha describes the various Jewish holidays. In between the holidays of Shavuos and Rosh Hashanah, the Torah mentions[3] the mitzvos of peah (lit: corner) and leket (gleanings). When a Jewish farmer is harvesting his crop, there are special mitzvos of tzedakah that he must fulfill. He must leave a corner of his field unharvested, allowing the poor to take as they need. Likewise, when harvesting crops, sometimes some of the produce falls to the ground, known as gleanings. The farmer is commanded to leave those on the ground for the poor to collect. In addition to commanding the farmer not to harvest peah and leket, the Torah adds the injunction to specifically leave them for the poor and the convert. What is this adding? If the farmer isn’t harvesting them, he is inherently leaving them for others. Why is there this redundancy?

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Acharei Mos-Kedoshim 5777

The forbidden fruit[1]

וכי-תבאו אל-הארץ ונטעתם כל-עץ מאכל וערלתם ערלתו את-פריו שלש שנים יהיה לכם ערלים לא יאכל; ובשנה הרעיעת יהיה כל-פריו קדש הלולים ליקוק
When you come to the land and plant any fruit-bearing tree, you’ll consider its fruit orlah, it will be orlah for three years and not be eaten. And in the fourth year all of its fruit will be holy, a praise[2] to Hashem[3]

This week’s parsha introduces a unique prohibition to fruit trees. The fruit they bear cannot be eaten by Jews for the first three years after it is planted. This prohibition is known as orlah, related to the Hebrew word for blockage[4], meaning the fruit is blocked from consumption[5]. During the entire fourth year of the tree all of its fruit is considered holy, and must be brought to Jerusalem for consumption[6]. Afterwards, the fruit may be eaten and treated normally. What are the reasons for this mitzvah? What is its purpose, and what is it trying to teach us?

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Tazria-Metzora 5777

Double walled protection[1]

זאת תהיה תורת המצורע ביום טהרתו והובא אל הכהן: ויצא הכהן אל מחוץ למחנה וראה והנה נרפא נגע הצערת מן הצרוע
This shall be the law of the Metzora on the day of his purification: He shall be brought to the Kohen. The Kohen will go out of the camp and see and behold the tzara’as affliction has been healed from the Metzora[2]

This week’s double parsha deals mostly with the laws of tzara’as, most commonly translated as leprosy. While being a whitish skin condition, in reality it’s a totally unrelated spiritual malady[3] with physical symptoms. Chazal tell us[4] that someone who contracts tzara’as, known as a Metzora[5], usually committed a certain sin[6]. One example is that of loshon hara, evil speech. 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 pure, then he is. The opposite is also true. Once declared impure, there are a series of laws he must follow while in that state. An example is that he has to leave the city he is in and dwell by himself[7]. There are also a different set of laws on how to purify himself. Part of the purification process involves the Metzora going to the Kohen[8] and having him determine if the malady has diminished sufficiently. The problem is the very next verse describes the Kohen being the one leaving the city to go to the Metzora. Who is going to whom?

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Shemini 5777

Alien Fire[1]

ויקחו בני-אהרן נדב ואביהוא איש מחתתו ויתנו בהן אש וישימו עליה קטרת ויקרבו לפני יקוק אש זרה אשר לא צוה אתם: ותצא אש מלפני יקוק ותאכל אותם וימתו לפני יקוק
The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took their fire pan, put fire in it, placed on it incense, and offered before Hashem an alien fire that they were not commanded [to bring]. A fire then went forth from before Hashem and consumed them and they died before Hashem[2]

Right after the inauguration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, tragedy strikes. The entire Jewish people are overjoyed that their hard work has paid off.  They’ve finally built the Mishkan, and Hashem has shown that His Divine Presence is with them[3]. Two of the sons of Aharon, wanting to express their gratitude, offered a voluntary incense offering. Their plan backfires and a fire comes forth and kills them. The verses seem to indicate that their sin was bringing an unwanted offering. However, Chazal indicate that there were other sins which caused their deaths.

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Pesach 5777

To change one’s nature[1]

הים ראה וינס הירדן יסב לאחור
The Reed Sea[2] saw and ran away, the Jordan River turned backwards[3]

During the holiday of Pesach (as well as every other holiday), we recite Hallel during the morning prayers. It consists of chapters 113 to 118 from Psalms. Chapter 114 describes how when the Jews left Egypt, nature was entirely subservient to them. Nothing stood in their way. Most pronounced was the miracle of the splitting of the sea. On the seventh day of Pesach, we commemorate this event with the Torah Reading being the Song at Sea that the Jews recited[4] after this miracle.  In Psalms the sea is described as “running away” from the Jews, meaning that it split in two, after seeing something. What did it see that made it split? Chazal teach us that it was the coffin[5] of Yosef[6]. When Yosef was dying, he commanded his brothers and their descendants to ensure when the Jews are redeemed from Egypt that his remains be taken to the land of Israel to be buried there[7]. The Torah describes that it was Moshe who brought the coffin of Yosef with him to the sea[8].

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Pesach-Tzav 5777

The message of the four cups on Passover[1]

מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות
Why[2] is this night different than every other night?[3]

In the four questions we list four differences that are prominent on the night of the Seder as opposed to other nights: eating only matzah and no leavened bread, eating marror (bitter herbs), dipping two times[4], and eating and drinking while reclining. A difference that’s neglected is the obligation to drink four cups of wine, which doesn’t exist on other nights. Why is this difference not mentioned in the Haggadah?

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Vayikra 5777

What’s in a name, anyways?[1]

ויקרא אל-משה וידבר יקוק אליו מאהל מועד לאמר
[Hashem] called out to Moshe; Hashem spoke to him from the tent of meeting saying[2]

Chazal inform us in the Midrash[3] that Moshe had not only one, but ten names. Some examples are: Tuviah, from the word טוב, because when he was born it says ותרא אתו כי טוב הוא, they saw that he was good[4]. Yered, meaning he brought down, because he brought down the Torah from the Heavens. Chever, meaning to join together, because he connected the Jews to their Father in heaven[5]. The Midrash ends by declaring that Hashem only wants to call him Moshe, the name that the daughter of Pharaoh gave him[6], as demonstrated by the first verse of this week’s parsha.

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Vayakhel – Pekudei 5777

It’s the effort that counts[1]

ויקם משה את-המשכן ויתן את-אדניו וישם את-קרשיו ויתן את-בריחיו ויקם את-עמודיו
Moshe erected the Mishkan; he placed the sockets and inserted the beams, placed the bars and erected its posts[2]

This week’s parsha includes an accounting of the materials of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the manufacturing of the clothing of the Kohanim, and finally the construction of the Mishkan itself. The verse describes how Moshe erected the Mishkan, placing the kerashim, the beams, into their sockets. The Midrash[3] describes the prelude to this: how everyone came to Moshe and said to him that they couldn’t construct the Mishkan; it was too heavy. The beams were massive, and weighed a ton, especially since they were plated in solid gold[4]. Moshe responded by asking them what they expected him to do about that. Moshe was an elderly man in his eighties; they couldn’t reasonably demand that he do it for them. Hashem told Moshe to make an attempt to erect it. Even though his own efforts would have been meaningless, Hashem would do the rest. He made the attempt and was able to erect the beams.

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