Purim 5782

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The timeless Torah[1]

ותקרא אסתר להתך מסריסי המלך אשר העמיד לפניה ותצוהו על-מרדכי לדעת מה-זה ועל-מה-זה
Esther called to Hasach, one of the king’s attendants who was assigned to assist her, and commanded him regarding Mordechai, to know what this was, and what this was about[2]

After Haman and Achashverosh’s harsh decree to exterminate the Jews was made known, Mordechai tore his clothes in mourning[3]. He wore sackcloth and ash. His relative Esther, who was now the Queen of Persia, heard what Mordechai was doing. This distressed her very much. She sent an attendant to inquire Mordechai about what he was doing, for she was unaware of the recent decree. The Megillah uses an interesting expression to describe her inquiry. מה זה ועל מה זה. She asked what this was and what this was about.

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Yom Kippur 5782

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Two seemingly indistinguishable goats[1]

ומאת עדת בני ישראל יקח שני-שעירי עזים לחטאת וגו’ ונתן אהרן על-שני השעירם גורלות גורל אחד ליקוק וגורל אחד לעזאזל: והקריב אהרן את-השעיר אשר עלה עליו הגורל ליקוק ועשהו חטאת
From the congregation of the Children of Israel, he shall take two goats for a sin offering…Aharon shall place on the two goats lots: one lot [to designate the goat] for Hashem, and one lot [to send it to] Azazel. Aharon will then offer the goat whose lot designated it to Hashem, and he shall make it a sin offering[2]

A major part of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple involved two identical[3] goats. They had to look the exact same, be the same size, and be sold for the same price[4]. One of them was to be brought as an offering to Hashem, and the other was to be sent off a cliff[5]. What was unique about these goats is the fate of each one was determined by a lottery. A box would contain two pieces of paper, one saying, “for Hashem”, and one saying, “for Azazel”. The paper saying “for Hashem” would determine which one would be brought as an offering, and the paper saying “for Azazel” which one for the cliff. The Kohen would stick his hands in the box and each one would grab a paper. The fate of the goat to his right would be determined by the paper in his right hand. The same for his left. What can we learn from this unique and unusual procedure[6]?

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Mattos / Masei 5781

The responsibility of the Kohen Gadol[1]

‏…והשיבו אתו העדה אל-עיר מקלטו אשר-נס שמה וישב בה עד-מות הכהן הגדל וגו’‏
…The congregation shall return [the accidental killer] to his city of refuge (where he initially fled to), and he shall dwell there until the death of the Kohen Gadol…[2]

The Torah mandates that someone who, G-d forbid, accidentally kills another, be sentenced to exile. They have to leave their family and friends and dwell in one of the cities of refuge that the Torah delineates. It serves both as protection from the deceased’s relatives (who may want to take revenge)[3], and as a form of atonement[4]. The Torah does give a time limit to this exile. Although, it’s seemingly incongruous to the crime committed. The accidental killer must stay in their city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Only then can they return to their home. Why did the Torah make his freedom dependent on the Kohen Gadol’s death?

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Pesach 5781

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Fast of the firstborn[1]

הבכורות מתענין בערב פסח בין בכור מאב בין בכור מאם ויש מי שאומר שאפילו נקבה בכורה מתענה: (ואין המנהג כן)
The firstborns fast on the day before Pesach, whether they are the firstborn of their father or firstborn of their mother. Some say even firstborn women fast (Gloss: but this isn’t the custom)[2]

There’s an ancient custom[3] for the firstborn to fast on Erev Pesach, the day before Pesach. The common explanation[4] for this fast day is that it’s in commemoration of The Plague of the First Born. The last of the Ten Plagues, all the firstborn Egyptians died at midnight. All the firstborn of the Jews were miraculously saved, so every year right before Pesach the firstborn fast. This sounds like it’s due to the gratitude of the firstborns that they fast.

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Chanukah 5781

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Intellectual superiority[1]

בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ: והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על-פני תהום וגו’‏
In the beginning of G-d’s creating of the Heaven and the Earth. The land was unformed[2] and empty[3], and darkness on the surface of the deep…[4]

Our Sages teach us[5] that it was predetermined[6] that the Jewish people would undergo four periods of subjugation. These periods were caused by four kingdoms, all alluded to in scripture: Babylonia, Persia / Media, Greece, and Rome. The verse that describes the early process of creation says that the land was tohu (unformed), bohu (empty), and darkness on the surface of the deep. Tohu refers to Babylonia, vohu refers to Persia / Media, darkness refers to Greece, and the deep refers to Rome. Our Sages clarify that the reason that Greece is referred to as darkness because they darkened the eyes of the Jewish people with their decrees. How are the other kingdoms alluded to with these adjectives?

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Rosh Hashanah 5781

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Hashem’s ways of judgement[1]

בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון וכו’ בראש השנה כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון שנאמר היוצר יחד לבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם
On four occasions the world is judged…on Rosh Hashanah all of the world’s inhabitants pass before Him like benei Maron, as it is written: “The One who makes together their hearts, The One who understands all of their actions”[2]

Our Sages teach us that on Rosh Hashanah every individual on Earth passes before Hashem for judgement, like benei maron. What does benei maron mean? The gemarra provides[3] three explanations: like a flock of sheep[4], like the steps of the House of Maron, or like the soldiers of King David. A flock a sheep refers to when a shepherd wants to count his sheep, he counts them one-by-one as they pass through a narrow entrance[5]. The steps of the House of Maron was a narrow path that not even two people could walk up side-by-side[6]. The soldiers of King David’s army would be counted one-by-one as they went out to wage war[7]. These three explanations seem to all be saying the same thing: Hashem judges every individual on Rosh Hashanah one after the other. What then is their dispute?

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Ki Seitzei 5780

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The price of ingratitude[1]

לא-יבא עמוני ומואבי בקהל יקוק גם דור עשירי לא-יבא להם בקהל יקוק עד-עולם: על-דבר אשר לא-קדמו אתכם בלחם ובמים בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים ואשר שכר עליך את-בלעם וגו’ לקללך
An Ammonite and a Moavite shall not marry into the congregation of Hashem. Even the tenth generation shall not marry into the congregation of Hashem, for all time. Due to the matter that they didn’t present you with bread or water when you were traveling from Egypt, and for having hired Bilaam…to curse you[2]

The Torah informs us that a convert from the nation of Ammon or Moav cannot marry into the Jewish people. The reason is twofold: they didn’t present us with bread or water when we were traveling from Egypt, and because they[3] hired the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Jews[4]. If we were to pick the worse of the two crimes, seemingly the second one is more severe. If Bilaam had successfully cursed the Jews, there would be no remnant left[5]. His goal, as well as those who hired him, was to obliterate the Jewish people from the face of the Earth. Shouldn’t that be enough of a reason not to intermarry with them? Why then does the Torah also need to mention the reason that they didn’t offer us bread and water? That was simply a lack of showing honor and respect, or at the very least of generosity. It’s surely not as severe as wanting to annihilate them. Further, why is the sin of not giving bread and water listed first, implying it’s worse than the second one?

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Devarim 5780

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A defense mechanism[1]

ואת-העם צו לאמר אתם עברים בגבול אחיכם בני-עשו הישבים בשעיר וייראו מכם ונשמרתם מאד

Command the people, saying: “You are passing through the territory of your brother, the children of Eisav, who dwell in [the land of] Seir. They fear you tremendously, and you shall be very cautious”[2]

The book of Deuteronomy begins with Moshe recounting to the Jews their forty-year journey throughout the wilderness. They were about to enter the land of Israel, and Moshe was about to pass on from this Earth. Moshe wanted them to glean lessons from their failures and experiences throughout their travels, so that they’ll be better equipped for what’s to come. Towards the end of their journey, they began approaching the land of Seir, where Eisav dwelled. Moshe informed the Jewish people that the nation of Eisav feared the Jews tremendously. They should be very cautious as they pass through their land. In the end they weren’t able to pass through, so they had to circle around their borders. What lesson is Moshe giving the people by recounting to them this episode?

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Shelach 5780

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Humble matters[1]

אלה שמות האנשים אשר-שלח משה לתור את-הארץ ויקרא משה להושע בן-נון יהושע
These are the names of the men who were sent by Moshe to scout out the land. Moshe called Hoshea the son of Nun: Yehoshua[2]

When the Jews had almost arrived at the land of Israel, they had the idea to send spies to scout out the land[3]. They wanted to know not only about the landscape, but about the inhabitants[4]. Were they a conquerable force, or not? Twelve men, one for each tribe, were selected for the task. One of them was Moshe’s faithful student[5], Yehoshua. He was originally called Hoshea, but Moshe, as a form of prayer, added the letter yud to his name, making it Yehoshua. Moshe was concerned that the spies had evil intentions, and would falsely give a negative report. He therefore added a letter from G-d’s name to Yehoshua’s, pleading that Hashem should save Yehoshua from the council of the spies[6]. What prompted Moshe to give this name change to Yehoshua? One explanation[7] is that Moshe saw Yehoshua’s great humility, and thus felt he needed this prayer[8]. What does one have to do with the other?

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Tzav 5780

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Elevation with ash removal[1]

צו את-אהרן ואת-בניו לאמר זאת תורה העלה היא העלה וגו’ ואש המזבח תוקד בו: ולבש הכהן וגו’ והרים את-הדשן וגו’ והאש על-המזבח תוקד-בו וגו’‏
Command Aharon and his sons, saying: “This is the law of the Olah offering. It is the Olah…the fire of the altar should be ignited by it. The Kohen will adorn…he will lift the ash [off the alter]…The fire on the altar shall remain burning…[2]

The Olah offering is one of the many kinds of offerings in the Temple. It’s called an Olah offering because of what makes it unique. It’s entirely consumed by the altar fire. No person is permitted to eat from its flesh. Olah means elevation, as the offering is considered to entirely elevate towards Heaven. The Torah states that it is about to detail the laws of the Olah offering, and then proceeds to discuss something else entirely. There’s a mitzvah for the Kohen to scoop up the ash from the altar once a day and place it on the side of the altar. This is known as terumas hadeshen. There’s also a mitzvah to put wood on the altar so the fire doesn’t extinguish. Instead of the Torah describing the laws of the Olah[3], it details these two mitzvos. Why then does it give this seemingly misleading introduction?

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