Pesach 5779

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The mighty hand of Hashem[1]

מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים חמץ ומצה וכו’‏
Why is this night different from all other nights? For on all other nights, we eat leavened and non-leavened bread etc…

עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים ויוציאנו יקוק אלקים משם ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem, G-d, took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm[2]

The Ma-Nishatana is a classic moment at everyone’s Seder. The youngest member of the house proudly gets up and asks the Four Questions. The Haggadah continues by declaring that we were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh. This would seem to be an attempt to answer the child’s questions. However, what connection is there between the parent’s response and the child’s questions? They seem totally incongruous.

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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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Purim 5779

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The depth of ingratitude[1]

‏…וישלח ויבא את-אהביו ואת-זרש אשתו: ויספר להם המן את-כבוד עשרו ורב בניו ואת כל-אשר גדלו המלך ואת אשר נשאו על-השרים ועבדי המלך: ויאמר המן וגו’ וכל-זה איננו שוה לי בכל-עת אשר אני ארה את-מרדכי היהודי יושב בשער המלך
…[Haman] sent for and brought his friends and his wife Zeresh. He spoke to them about all of his glory, wealth, multitude of children, the promotions that the King had given him, how he was in charge of all the ministers and slaves of the King. Haman said [to them]: “…All of this is worthless to me, so long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting in the gate of the King”[2]

Towards the end of the Megillah, Haman practically had a mental breakdown. His arch nemesis Mordechai was still alive, despite Haman’s desire that all the Jews be killed. Haman himself delayed Mordechai’s execution, in order to kill his entire people on the same day. It’s clear that Haman had grown impatient, waiting for the decreed day’s arrival. He complained to his family and friends that he felt like nothing in his life mattered, so long as Mordechai the Jew was alive.

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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

Ki Sisa 5779

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Order of greatness[1]

וידבר יקוק אל-משה לאמר: ראה קראתי בשם בצלאל בן-אורי בן-חור למטה יהודה: ואמלא אתו רוח אלקים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת ובכל-מלאכה: ואתה דבר אל-בני ישראל לאמר אך את-שבתתי תשמרו כי אות הוא ביני וביניכם לדרתיכם לדעת כי אני יקוק מקדשכם
Hashem said to Moshe, saying: “See that I have called to prominence Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Chur, from the tribe of Yehudah. I will fill him with a spirit of G-d, with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and every workmanship [ability]…And you shall speak to the Children of Israel, saying: ‘However, guard my Shabbos, since it is a sign between Me and You, for your generations, to know that I am G-d, who sanctifies you’”[2]

This week’s parsha contrasts the construction of the Mishkan with the observance of Shabbos. The Mishkan was an incredibly complicated structure, with intricate details to its vessels and overall set-up. Hashem chose Betzalel to be the master architect behind the project. In order for him to be fit for the job, it wasn’t enough that he be the most talented and qualified individual. He had to receive Divine assistance. The Torah tells us that he received an extra level of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.

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Tetzaveh 5779

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The unnecessary lights[1]

ואתה תצוה את-בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד: באהל מעוד מחוץ לפרכת וגו’ חקת עולם לדרתם מאת בני ישראל
You shall command the Children of Israel, that they should take to you highly purified, crushed oil for illumination, to ignite a constant flame. [It will be] in the Tent of Meeting, outside the Paroches curtain…an everlasting decree for their generations, from the Children of Israel[2]

The parsha begins with the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah in the Temple. This command seems highly out of place. It would have belonged nicely after the Mishkan was erected in its place, and not to be sandwiched between the parsha of the Temple vessels and the parsha of the Kohanic garments. Why was it placed here? As well, there’s a different parsha later[3] in the Torah dedicated to the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. These verses in our parsha would have belonged better there. Finally, the end of the verse appears unnecessary. It could have simply ended by saying that the Menorah is an everlasting decree for their generations. What do the words, “from the Children of Israel”, add to our understanding?

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