Shemini 5780

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Respect for the past, acclimating to the future[1]

דברו אל-בני ישראל לאמר זאת החיה אשר תאכלו מכל-הבהמה אשר על-הארץ: כל מפרסת פרסת ושסעת שסע פרסת מעלת גרה בבהמה אתה תאכלו: אך את-זה לא תאכלו ממעלי הגרה וממפריסי הפרסה את-הגמל כי-מעלה גרה הוא ופרסה איננו מפריס וגו’ ואת-החזיר כי-מפריס פרסה הוא ושסע שסע פרסה והוא גרה לא-יגר טמא הוא לכם
Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: “These are the animals that you shall eat, from all the animals on the Earth: Any animal with completely split hooves, which chews its cud, you shall eat. However, these you shall not eat from those that chew their cud and have split hooves: The camel, although it chews its cud, its hooves aren’t [completely] split…And the pig, although its hooves are completely split, it doesn’t chew its cud. It is impure to you”[2]

The basic laws of kosher animals are introduced in this parsha. The rules are simple: animals with the Torah’s two kosher signs are permissible to eat. They need to have their hooves be completely split and chew their cud. If the animal has only one of these signs, like a camel or a pig, and for sure if it has neither of these signs, like a horse or a lion, then it is not kosher. However, sheep, lambs, cows, and deer, have both signs. These are permissible animals to eat.

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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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Ki Seitzei 5779

Returning what was lost[1]

לא-תראה את-שור אחיך או את-שיו נדחים והתעלמת מהם השב תשיבם לאחיך
Do not see your brother’s ox or his sheep straying and hide yourself from them; [rather] you shall surely return them to your brother[2]

This week’s parsha contains more mitzvos than any other. One of them is a classic case where the Torah’s concern for interpersonal relationships is demonstrated. We are commanded to return lost objects to our friend. If we see that their possession was dropped, we have to make our best efforts to get it back into their hand. There are those that suggest that if we are commanded to be concerned for another’s monetary objects, all the more so we should be concerned for their souls[3]. However, as with everything in Torah, there are many layers of meaning[4]. Some want to suggest[5] that the verse itself is referring to a concern for another’s spiritual welfare.

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Pinchas 5779

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Two forms of scholarship[1]

ובני קרח לא מתו
The sons of Korach didn’t die[2]

This week’s parsha contains yet another census. The Torah lists all the different families by tribe, and states their total numbers. While detailing the families in the tribe of Levi, the family of Korach, who started a failed rebellion against Moshe[3], is mentioned. The Torah wanted to emphasize that although Korach’s children were part of his rebellion, they did not perish like their father did. Rather, they repented at the last moment, saving their lives[4]. The gemarra relates[5] that when their lives were spared, the children of Korach sang a song of praise to Hashem. What song did they choose to sing?

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Shelach 5779

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The paths of two greats[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].

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Beha’alosecha 5779

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The three pillars of a positive character[1]

דבר אל-אהרן ואמרת אליו בהעלותך את-הנרת אל-מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות: ויעש כן אהרן אל מול פני המנורה העלה נרתיה כאשר צוה יקוק את-משה
Speak to Aharon and say to him: When you ignite the lights, let them illuminate towards the center of the Menorah[2]. Aharon did so; he ignited its lights towards the center of the Menorah, as Hashem commanded Moshe[3]

This week’s parsha begins by discussing the Menorah, including its make and how it was lit[4]. The Torah uses an unusual way to describe the lighting of the Menorah wicks: בהעלותך. Literally, with your raising up the lights. There are many things learned from this, but one of them is the fact that Aharon was instructed to construct a three-step block of stone in front of the Menorah[5]. Meaning, the verse is telling Aharon and his descendants to “go up” to light the Menorah, using these steps. The next verse teaches us that Aharon properly constructed these steps. We could say that this was a practical necessity, in order to reach the top of the Menorah[6]. Why though were there specifically three steps[7]? Also, was there any more significance to this steppingstone?

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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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Va’eira 5779

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The vicious cycle of anger[1]

ויט אהרן את-ידו על מימי מצרים ותעל הצפרדע ותכס את-ארץ מצרים
Aharon held out his arm over the water of Egypt, and the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt[2]

The second of the ten plagues was the plague of frogs. The frogs were everywhere. They were in the Egyptians’ households, including their kitchens and bedrooms[3]. Miraculously, they even entered the Egyptians; bodies and croaked in their digestive tracks[4]. The verse that introduces the plague has a grammatical oddity. It says that the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt. Why is this word in the singular? The simple explanation[5] is that sometimes things that are great in number are described in the singular. This is because when they are on-mass, they appear to be one giant force to be reckoned with. This is what happened in Egypt.

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Tazria-Metzora 5778

Making the humble proud[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 double parsha 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. The Torah describes how a Metzora can purify himself once declared impure. It’s an entire ritual that takes place in the Temple, and includes bringing certain offerings. Part of the offering includes a rod from a cedar tree. What is the significance of including this?

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Tetzaveh / Zachor 5778

Misplaced humility[1]

ויהי דבר-יקוק אל-שמואל לאמר: נחמתי כי-המלכתי את-שאול למלך כי-שב מאחרי ואת-דברי לא הקים וגו’ ויאמר שמואל הלוא אם-קטן אתה בעיניך ראש שבטי ישראל אתה וימשחך יקוק למלך על-ישראל וגו’‏
And it was that the word of Hashem came to Shmuel, saying: “I have regretted coronating Shaul to be King, as he has turned away from Me and has not fulfilled My words.”…Shmuel [later said to Shaul]: “Is it not true that you view yourself as insignificant? You are the head of the tribes of Israel! Hashem has anointed you to be King over Israel…”[2]

This week is the week before Purim. As such, for maftir we read parshas Zachor[3], which enumerates the mitzvos involved in remembering what the nation of Amalek did to us when we left Egypt. As well, we read a special haftarah[4], recounting the sin of King Shaul. He was commanded by the prophet Shmuel to put an end to the evils of the nation of Amalek, and he failed to do so. The gemarra makes an interesting observation[5]: King Shaul transgressed one mitzvah[6] and had to suffer the consequences. He was punished with an early death, and the kingship was taken away from his descendants and given over to David. This is unlike King David, who transgressed two mitzvos[7] and kept the kingship. Why was this so?

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