Tazria / Metzora 5781

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The difference between a Metzora and a Kohen[1]

אדם וגו’ והיה בעור-בשרו לנגע צרעת והובא אל-אהרן הכהן או אל-אחד מבניו הכהנים: ויצא הכהן אל-מחוץ למחנה וראה הכהן והנה נרפא נגע-הצרעת מן-הצרוע
When a person…develops a tzara’as affliction on their skin, he shall be brought to Aharon the Kohen, or to one of his sons, the Kohanim… The Kohen shall go outside the camp and he shall see, and behold! The afflicted person’s tzara’as affliction has healed![2]

This week’s double parsha mostly deals 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.

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Shevii shel Pesach 5781

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The free choice to split[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[5]. 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? One explanation[6] is from a Midrash, which says is it saw the Jews fighting whether they should jump into the sea or not[7]. Some felt it would be a sanctification of Hashem’s name, and they had faith He would perform a miracle. Others felt it wasn’t a good idea. This is very hard to understand. Why would this be a reason for the sea to split? If anything, the fact that the Jews disagreed whether to sanctify Hashem’s name should be a reason not to split. What’s the intent of this Midrash?

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Vayakhel/Pekudei 5781

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One mitzvah, or many?[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 וגו’ ויאמר משה אל-כל-עדת בני-ישראל לאמר זה הדבר אשר-צוה יקוק לאמר: קחו מאתכם תרומה ליקוק כל נדיב לבו יביאה את תרומת יקוק וגו’‏
Moshe gathered the entire assembly of the Children of Israel. He said to them: “These are the matters which Hashem commanded to do: Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day it shall be for you a Holy Shabbos”…Moshe said to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, saying: “This is the matter that Hashem commanded, saying: Take for yourselves a donation for Hashem. All those with a generous heart will bring their portion for Hashem”[2]

This week’s parsha begins by speaking about the mitzvah of Shabbos. It then continues with a detailed description of the construction and materials of the Mishkan, the portable Temple the Jews built in the wilderness. There’s a discrepancy with how these two mitzvos are introduced. The mitzvah of Shabbos is described as, “these are the matters which Hashem commanded”, and the mitzvah of constructing the Mishkan is described as, “this is the matter”. Besides the inconsistency, these descriptions are also counterintuitive. One would think that Shabbos is only one prohibition, to refrain from creative labor. This is unlike the construction of the Mishkan, which involves many parts, such as the Ark, the Altar, the Menorah. Why then is Shabbos described in the plural, and the Mishkan in the singular?

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Ki Sisa 5781

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Charity assurances[1]

העשיר לא-ירבה והדל לא ימעיט ממחצית השקל לתת את-תרומת יקוק לכפר על-נפשתיכם
The wealthy shall not increase, nor shall the poor decrease, from the half-shekel donation. To give the donation of Hashem [is] to atone for their souls[2]

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah to give the half-shekel donation to the Temple, known as the machatzis hashekel. This donation was to help fund the offerings throughout the year. In this instance, it was also to help fund the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Temple while the Jews were in the wilderness. There’s an interesting message embedded into the mitzvah. The same amount is donated by every Jew. It doesn’t matter what the person’s standing is. If they’re exceedingly wealthy, or terribly poor, every Jew is to donate the same amount. The wealthy shouldn’t give more, and the poor shouldn’t give less[3]. It shows that in many ways, we’re all equal. We’re all children of Hashem.

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Purim 5781

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Reaching the greatest heights through regretting sin[1]

חייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim to the point that they don’t know the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai”[2]

Everyone is familiar with the concept of getting drunk on Purim. Our Sages even seem to say that a person is obligated to get drunk on Purim. This begs the obvious question[3]: How could our Sages obligate such a repugnant thing? Our scriptures are full of descriptions of the evils of drunkenness, and it is known to all that it causes people to stumble in their behavior. Why would the day of Purim be any different? This is a question that many struggle with. One suggestion[4] is that it’s to commemorate the fact that all the miracles of Purim occurred through the drinking of wine. Vashti was sentenced to death because Achashverosh was drunk, allowing Esther to become the queen. Haman’s downfall occurred during a wine drinking party. Nevertheless, this doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation. Why should this commemoration be enough to justify something so vile?

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Terumah / Zachor 5781

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Amazing abode allusions[1]

דבר אל בני-ישראל ויקחו-לי תרומה מאת כל-איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את-תרומתי: וזאת התרומה אשר תקחו מאתם זהב וכסף ונחשת
Speak to the Children of Israel: “Take for Me a portion from each person. [From] those whose heart feels generous, take My portion. This is the portion that you should take from them: gold, silver, and copper”[2]

This week’s parsha introduces us to the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the portable Temple that the Jews constructed and used in the wilderness. It was literally a place for Hashem’s presence in this world. His presence was palpable, and allowed the Jews a chance to connect with Hashem in a way we can only imagine. The Torah tells us that the Jews were asked to take part in its construction. Each person would donate the materials needed for the Mishkan, donating what they saw fit. Besides gold, silver, and copper, many other materials are listed. However, if we focus on these three materials, we’ll find an amazing allusion hidden in their letters[3].

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Asarah BaTeves 5781

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When Asarah BaTeves falls on Shabbos[1]

בן-אדם כתב-לך את-שם היום את-עצם היום הזה סמך מלך-בבל אל-ירושלם בעצם היום הזה
Son of Man, write for yourself the name of today. On this very day, the King of Babylonia began his siege on Jerusalem, on this very day[2]

Of the four minor fasts in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the tenth of Teves is unique. This fast, which is in commemoration of the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem[3], is the only fast in our present calendar that can fall on a Friday[4]. It creates an unusual situation where we go into Shabbos having not eaten the entire day prior. Usually, a person shouldn’t go into Shabbos hungry[5]. This day is the exception. While this in fact happens this year, 5781, it’s also a very infrequent occurrence. Although it will happen again in two years, it’s been 20 years since it last happened. Something else that’s unique about the fast known as Asarah BaTeves is that in our present calendar, it cannot fall on Shabbos. The other fast days can. However, since it is forbidden to fast on Shabbos (besides Yom Kippur), they get pushed off until Sunday[6]. This situation doesn’t occur for Asarah BaTeves, as it cannot fall on Shabbos anyways.

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Chayei Sarah 5781

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Late night preparations[1]

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה
The life of Sarah was 127 years. [These] were the years of Sarah’s life[2]

ותקם בעוד לילה ותתן טרף לביתה וחוק לנערותיה
She would get up late in the night, and provide nourishment[3] for her household and food[4] for her children[5]

A story is told[6] about the legendary scholar Rabbi Akiva. He was sitting and expounding a lengthy and complex sermon to his myriad of students. He raised his head from his book and noticed that a significant amount of the crowd was dozing off. In an attempt to arouse them from their sleep, he said the following: Why did Queen Esther choose to rule over 127 countries? The reason is because she is a descendant of Sarah, who lived 127 years. That’s all we’re told of the story. What message was Rabbi Akiva trying to convey? More than that, how was a statement like that supposed to wake them from their slumber?

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Sukkos / Koheles 5781

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Declined desires[1]

בקש קהלת למצא דברי-חפץ וכתוב ישר דברי אמת

Koheles sought to find desired sayings, and genuine recorded words of truth[2]

The custom on Sukkos is to read from the book of Koheles, otherwise known as Ecclesiastes[3]. Various reasons are provided for this. One is that the festival of Sukkos is one of joy, and Ecclesiastes cautions us about the dangers of unbridled joy[4]. The work is attributed to King Shlomo[5]. Indeed, the classical understanding is the protagonist Koheles is none other than King Shlomo himself[6]. Regarding one verse, Chazal share[7] a cryptic interpretation. Koheles, namely King Shlomo, desired to be like Moshe[8]. However, a Heavenly voice proclaimed “וכתוב ישר דברי אמת”, literally: it is written straight, words of truth[9]. What does this teaching mean?

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HaAzinu 5781

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The required rebuke[1]

שובה ישראל עד יקוק אלקיך כי כשלת בעונך
Return, Israel, to Hashem your G-d! For you have stumbled in your sins[2]

The first Midrash in parshas HaAzinu[3] seems to have a completely irrelevant halachic query. What’s the law if someone has some sort of ear ailment on Shabbos? Is it permissible for them to seek medical help? The Midrash answers that our Sages taught us[4] that preservation of life overrides Shabbos[5]. This back and forth sounds like some sort of cryptic riddle. What’s it alluding to? Is there some relevance to the time period that we find ourselves in?

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