Behar 5779

The Mountain and the rested Land[1]

וידבר יקוק אל-משה בהר סיני לאמר: דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם כי תבואו אל הארץ אשר אני נותן לכם ושבתה הארץ שבת ליקוק
Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you arrive at the land which I give to you, the land shall rest, a Sabbath for Hashem[2]

This week’s parsha begins by introducing the mitzvah of shemittah, the Sabbatical year. Once every seven years the land of Israel is to lie fallow, and the fruits become ownerless. What’s unusual with this mitzvah is it’s introduced by specifying that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai. This specification isn’t done with any other mitzvah. What does shemittah have to do with Mount Sinai? Rashi says[3] to teach us that just like the general principles as well as the details of the mitzvah of shemittah were taught at Mount Sinai, the same is true for all mitzvos. However, this is only the opinion of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Yishmael holds that all other mitzvos had their general principles taught at Mount Sinai, and their details were taught at the Tent of Meeting[4] [5]. What then does he learn from the specification of Mount Sinai with the mitzvah of shemittah? As well, even according to Rabbi Akiva, why was shemittah chosen to specifically teach us this idea?

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Emor / Sefiras HaOmer 5779

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Receiving the munn and offering the Omer[1]

דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם כי-תבאו אל-הארץ אשר אני נתן לכם וקצרתם את-קצירה והבאתם את-עמר ראשית קצירכם אל הכהן: והניף את-העמר לפני יקוק לרצנכם ממחרת השבת יניפנו הכהן
Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the land that I give to you, and you harvest its produce, you shall bring the Omer, the first of your harvest, to the Kohen. He shall wave the Omer before Hashem, to make you desirable[2]; the day after Pesach[2] the Kohen shall wave it.

וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת מיום הביאכם את-עמר התנופה שבע שבתות תמימת תהיינה: עד ממחרת השבת השביעת תספרו חמשים יום והקרבתם מנחה חדשה ליקוק
You shall count for yourselves, from the day after Pesach, from the day you brought the waved Omer, seven weeks, which shall be perfect. Until after the seventh week, count fifty days, and then offer a new flour offering to Hashem[3]

The Omer flour offering which was brought the day after Pesach is highly unusual. An omer is literally a volume of flour, also known as a tenth of an eiphah[4]. All other flour offerings don’t use the word omer to describe their quantity, and indeed simply say a tenth of an eiphah[5]. Why then does this offering use the term Omer? More than that, this offering is known by name by its volume of flour. Why is it called the Omer offering? Further, there’s a mitzvah to count every day up to fifty days after Pesach. This mitzvah is called Sefiras HaOmer, literally the counting of the Omer. The whole point of the mitzvah is the anticipation of the festival of Shavuos[6], which culminates the fifty-day count. Why then is the mitzvah to specifically count “from the Omer”?

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Yisro 5779

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Yisro’s grand realization[1]

וישמע יתרו כהן מדין חתן משה את כל אשר עשה אלקים למשה ולישראל עמו כי הוציא יקוק את ישראל ממצרים
Yisro, the priest of Midian, the father in-law of Moshe, heard all that G-d did for Moshe and for His nation of Yisroel, since Hashem took Yisroel out of Egypt[2]

As the Jews traveled towards Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah[3], Moshe’s father in-law Yisro made a grand appearance. The Torah tells us that he heard what had happened to the Jews, and decided to join them and convert to their religion. The verse doesn’t specify what Yisro heard which inspired him to convert, but the Midrash elaborates[4]. One opinion says that Yisro heard about the splitting of the sea. In fact, the entire world heard about this amazing miracle. According to this opinion, only Yisro took the miracle as a call to action to join the Jewish people. Another opinion says that Yisro heard about the war with Amalek. Right after the Exodus, the Jews were ambushed by this nation which represents pure evil. It was this war that inspired Yisro to convert to the Jewish religion[5].

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Noach 5778

Issues of faith[1]

ויאמר יקוק לנח בא-אתה וכל-ביתך אל-התבה כי-אתך ראיתי צדיק לפני בדור הזה: ויעש נח ככל אשר-צוהו יקוק: ויבא נח ובניו ואשתו ונשי-בניו אתו אל-התבה מפני מי המבול
Hashem said to Noach: “Come to the ark, you and your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation”. Noach did according to all that he was commanded by Hashem. And Noach went, along with his sons, his wife, and his son’s wives, into the ark, due to[2] the flood[3]

Noach was told by Hashem to build an ark for himself and his family. That generation had proven itself to be entirely wicked, so Hashem was going to bring a flood to destroy the world. Noach and his family were the ones chosen to rebuild civilization. When the time finally came to enter the ark, Hashem commanded Noach to do so. The verse then testifies that Noach did all that Hashem had commanded him. Rashi explains[4] that this refers to his coming to the ark. The Torah then says that Noach and his family entered the ark because of the flood. Rashi points out[5] that this teaches us that Noach was of little faith. He believed and he didn’t believe that the flood would occur. He only brought his family into the Ark when the waters forced them inside. How can this be reconciled with the earlier verse, which praised Noach for following Hashem’s command to enter the ark[6]?

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Shelach 5777

All with the proper perspective[1]

וימתו האנשים מוצאי דבת-הארץ רעה במגפה לפני יקוק
The men who gave a bad report about the land [of Israel] died in a plague before Hashem[2]

As the Jews were just about to enter the land of Israel, they got an idea to send spies ahead to scout out the terrain. Twelve leaders, one from each tribe, were sent. They spent forty days touring the land, afterwards returning to the rest of the people. The Torah says that ten of them gave a bad report about the land, and the people wept and cried. They said that it was hopeless to try to conquer the land, for the inhabitants were mightier than they. Many wanted to return to Egypt, rather than die by the hands of the land’s inhabitants. As a result of what transpired, Hashem punishes the spies with a horrible death, and the rest of the people were sentenced to forty years of traveling aimlessly in the wilderness. Only those who survived would then get to enter the land.

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Behar-Bechukosai 5777

Quality versus Quantity[1]

ונתנה הארץ פריה ואכלתם לשבע וישבתם לבטח עליה: וכי תאמרו מה-נאכל בשנה השביעת הן לא נזרע ולא נאסף את-תבואתנו: וצויתי את-ברכתי לכם בשנה הששית ועשה את-התבואה לשלש השנים
The land will give its fruit, and you will eat to satiation, and dwell securely on it. And if you’ll say: “what will we eat in the seventh year? Behold we can’t plant and gather our produce!” I will command my blessing for you in the sixth year, and the land will produce [enough] crops for three years[2]

The beginning of parshas Behar discusses the laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year in the land of Israel. Every seven years, the land attains a special level of kedusha, holiness, causing a whole set of laws to come into effect. Among the many laws that apply during the Shemittah year, a major one is that all agricultural work is forbidden. The land of Israel is to lie fallow. Before the industrial revolution, this mitzvah was incredibly relevant to the entire nation (while they were living in the land). Most of the people were farmers, and essentially got a year off to focus on more spiritual matters.

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Vayeira 5777

Laughing at good news[1]

ויאמר שוב אשוב אליך כעת חיה והנה-בן לשרה אשתך ושרה שמעת פתח האהל והוא אחריו: ותצחק שרה בקרבה לאמר אחרי בלתי לי עדנה ואדני זקן: ויאמר יקוק אל אברהם למה זה צחקה שרה לאמר האף אמנם אלד ואני זקן: ותכחש שרה לאמר לא צחקתי כי יראה ויאמר כי צחקת
[The Angel] said: “I will surely return at this time [next year] and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son”. Sarah [in the meantime] was listening at the entrance to the tent, and he/it was behind him. Sarah laughed within, saying: “After no longer having my period? As well, my husband is old?!” Hashem said to Avraham, why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: “Is it true that I’ll give birth, since I am old?” Sarah denied [this], and said, “I didn’t laugh!” because she was afraid. He said: “Actually, you laughed”.[2]

One of the hardest to understand episodes in Sefer Bereishis is the story of Sarah’s reaction to the good news that she’ll have a son. Three Angels, in the guise of desert travelers, approached Avraham’s tent and were invited to a meal[3]. These Angels each had a specific mission[4]. One came to announce that Sarah, despite her old age and being barren, will have a son. Besides all the strange grammatical anomalies and inconsistencies in this story[5], just the basic elements of the story are hard to understand. Avraham had been promised by Hashem to have many descendants[6]. While he already had a child with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, why was it so hard for Sarah to believe that she’d bear a child? It’s true that some commentaries say[7] that Avraham didn’t realize these people were Angels, so perhaps Sarah took this news as some stranger giving her false hope. However, knowing the promise to Avraham, if some stranger says similarly, what’s there to laugh about?

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