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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Bo 5780

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Separation by lamb blood[1]

החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה: דברו וגו’ ויקחו להם איש שה לבית-אבת שה לבית: ואם-ימעט הבית מהית משה ולקח הוא ושכנו הקרב אל-ביתו וגו’ ולקחו מן-הדם ונתנו על-שתי המזוזת ועל-המשקוף על הבתים אשר-יאכלו אתו בהם: והיה הדם לכם לאת על הבתים אשר אתם שם וגו’ ואתם לא תצאו איש מפתח-ביתו עד-בקר: ועבר יקוק לנגף את-מצרים וראה את-הדם על-המשקוף וגו’ ולא יתן המשחית לבא אל-בתיכם לנגף
This month will be for you the beginning of the months; for you it is the first for the months of the year. Tell [the Jewish people that]…they will take for them, each man, a lamb for the fathers’ homes, a lamb for each household. If the lamb will not suffice for the household, they and the neighbor close to their house will take…Take from the blood and place it on the two doorposts, and the lintel of the house that you will eat [the offering] in. The blood will be for you a sign on your houses that you will be in…and you shall not leave, each person, from the door of their house, until morning. Hashem will pass by to afflict the Egyptians, and will see the blood on the lintel…and He will not let the Destroyer come to your houses to afflict[2]

Before the plague of the death of the firstborn, Moshe instructed the Jews with several mitzvos. He started by informing them about the Jewish calendar, in which Nissan is the first of the months. This included details of the mitzvah to sanctify the New Moon, establishing the months accordingly. Subsequently, he informed them of the mitzvah of the Pesach offering. This included instructions on selecting a lamb for each household, taking its blood and putting it on the doorposts, and staying indoors until morning. How are we to understand the juxtaposition of these two mitzvos? As well, upon careful examination, we’ll observe that the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a whole is the mitzvah to sanctify the New Moon. Why was this mitzvah held in such high esteem that it merited to get the position as the first mitzvah? Finally, with regards to the Pesach offering, why is there so much emphasis on the house? It’s repeated and stressed multiple times. What could be the reason?

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Vayechi 5780

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Rebuking the impetuous[1]

ראובן בכורי אתה כחי וראשית אוני יתר שאת ויתר עז: פחז כמים אל-תותר כי עלית משכבי אביך אז חללת יצועי עלה
Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength, the first of my vigor. [Potentially][2] exceeding in position and exceeding in might. Hasty as water, you will not exceed, since you went up on your father’s bed. Then you profaned that which went upon my couch[3]

As Yaakov’s life was ending, he took the opportunity to give his children their final blessings. While accenting their unique traits, he also informed them of their shortcomings. He started with his firstborn Reuven by rebuking him for an incident that had happened decades earlier[4]. When Yaakov’s wife Rochel died, he moved his bed into Rochel’s maidservant Bilhah’s tent. Reuven felt this was an affront to his mother Leah, who should have become Yaakov’s primary wife. Reuven audaciously moved his father’s bed out of Bilhah’s tent and put it into Leah’s[5]. At the time, Yaakov said nothing. Now that Yaakov’s life was ending, it was now or never to rebuke Reuven.

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Mikeitz 5780

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The goblet of the wise[1]

הלוא אשר ישתה אדני בו והוא נחש ינחש בו וגו’‏
Is [this goblet] not that which my Master drinks from? He also divines with it…[2]

Yosef, as the viceroy of Egypt, had his brothers fooled. They didn’t recognize him as their brother, and he sent them home without a clue. More than that, Yosef had a plan to set up his brother Binyamin. Yosef had someone plant his precious goblet in Binyamin’s bag. As the brothers journeyed home, they were arrested for theft. What was Yosef’s purpose for this whole ruse?

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