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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Beshalach 5781

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An embittered situation[1]

ויבאו מרתה ולא יכלו לשתת מים ממרה כי מרים הם על-כן קרא-שמה מרה: ויצעק אל-יקוק ויורהו יקוק עץ וישלח אל-המים וימתקו המים שם שם לו חק ומשפט ושם נסהו
[The Jews] arrived at Marah, and they weren’t able to drink the water at Marah, as it was bitter. Therefore, the place was called Marah. [Moshe] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a piece of wood. [Moshe] threw the wood into the water, and the water became sweet. There [Hashem] placed for them a decree and an ordinance, and there He tested them[2]

The episode of Marah is short and sweet[3]. The Jews, after traveling for three days, had run out of water. They were hoping to drink from the water sources that they found at Marah. The problem was the water there was too bitter to drink. Moshe threw a piece of wood into the water, and it miraculously became sweet. Right afterwards is a vague verse. The Torah says that Hashem gave the Jews חק ומשפט, a decree and an ordinance. Our Sages teach us[4] this means that at that time they were introduced to a few mitzvos to be involved with: Shabbos, Parah Aduma (the laws of the Red Heifer used for ritual purity), and monetary laws[5] [6]. They would receive the rest of the Torah when they arrived at Mount Sinai.

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Vayeira 5781

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Serving while sleeping[1]

ותשקין את-אביהן יין בלילה הוא ותבא הבכירה ותשכב את-אביה ולא-ידע בשכבה ובקומה

[Lot’s daughters] gave their father wine to drink that night. The elder went and slept with her father, and he did not know of her sleeping or getting up[2]

The episode with Lot, the nephew of Avraham, and his daughters is well known. They got him drunk, and conceived children from him. He was so drunk that he was totally unaware of what was happening, as it was happening. This begs the question, what is a person’s level of responsibility when they are in this state? Obviously a person is accountable for getting themselves this drunk. However, when they are completely not in control, oblivious to their surroundings and to their actions, are they responsible? If a mitzvah is accomplished in this state[3], do they get credit? If they transgress a prohibition, are they punished? These questions are equally applicable to someone who is asleep. They too are totally unaware of what is happening. What is a person’s level of responsibility when they are sleeping?

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Ki Savo 5780

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The odd ones out[1]

אלה יעמדו לברך את-העם על-הר גרזים בעברכם את-הירדן שמעון ולוי ויהודה ויששכר ויוסף ובנימן: ואלה יעמדו על-הקללה בהר עיבל ראובן גד ואשר וזבלן דן ונפתלי
These shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people, as you pass over the Jordan River: Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef, and Binyamin. And these shall stand on Mount Eival for the curse: Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naftali[2]

One of the commandments[3] the Jewish people were instructed to fulfill as they entered the land of Israel is known as the Blessings and the Curses. The twelve tribes were to divide in two; half would pronounce blessings to the people for those that keep the Torah, and half would pronounce curses for those that didn’t. The Torah tells us who is to stand where: Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef, and Binyamin are to stand on Mount Gerizim and pronounce the blessings. If we look closely, we’ll see that they’re all children of Rochel and Leah, Yaakov’s primary wives. Those to stand on Mount Eival and pronounce the curses were Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naftali. The four children of Bilhah and Zilpah, Yaakov’s other two wives, are in this list. However, Reuven and Zevulun are the children of Leah. Why are they singled out from their brothers on Mount Gereizim, and told to stand on Mount Eival?

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Vaeschanan 5780

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Shabbos: which kind of rejuvenation?[1]

שמור את-יום השבת לקדשו כאשר צוך יקוק אלקיך: וזכרת כי-עבד היית בארץ מצרים וגו’‏
Safeguard the Shabbos day, to sanctify it, as Hashem your G-d commanded you…[So] you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt…[2]

The Ten Commandments make two appearances in the Torah. The first is parshas Yisro[3], when the Torah relates how the Jews heard Hashem speak at Mount Sinai. The second is this week’s parsha, where Moshe recounts that monumental event. A careful examination of the two listings will yield some slight but significant differences. Some of the most pronounced is with regards to the mitzvah of Shabbos. There are different themes and details that are chosen in the second instance, which don’t appear in the first. We are adjured to safeguard the Shabbos, instead of simply remembering it[4]. There’s also a focus on the fact that we were slaves in Egypt. What is the Torah highlighting with this connection to the Exodus?

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Pinchas 5780

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The just reward[1]

פינחס בן-אלעזר בן-אהרן הכהן השיב את-חמתי מעל בני-ישראל בקנאו את-קנאתי בתוכם וגו’ לכן אמר הנני נתן לו את-בריתי שלום
Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen, removed My wrath from upon the Jewish people, as he avenged My vengeance amongst them…Therefore, it shall be said that I hereby give him My covenant of Peace[2]

This week’s parsha starts by concluding the episode of the previous parsha. There were many Jews who were involved in lewd behavior with foreign women and idol worship[3]. This had the danger of causing the entire Jewish people to be wiped out in a plague. The grandson of Aharon, Pinchas, volunteered to take action. Although he wasn’t required[4], he punished the main instigator of the debacle. He stood up, when no one else did. His bold deed gave everyone time to pause, and the sinning stopped. The Jewish people were safe again. Hashem, in this week’s parsha, confirmed that Pinchas behaved properly by taking the law into his own hands. He announced that Pinchas would be rewarded. Chazal make a point[5] of stressing that Pinchas deserved to be rewarded. Why did they feel the need to point this out? The verse seemingly does a fine job of saying that he deserved to be rewarded.

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Behar-Bechukosai 5780

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The septennial Shabbos[1]

דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם כי תבאו אל-הארץ אשר אני נתן לכם ושבתה הארץ שבת ליקוק
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land will rest a Shabbos for Hashem”[2]

This parsha begins by introducing the mitzvah of the Shemittah year. The land of Israel is to lie fallow for an entire year, with no agricultural work done to it. The year is described as a Shabbos for Hashem. What does that mean? Rashi suggests[3] that it means לשם השם, for the sake of Hashem. Regarding the Shabbos of the seventh day of the week, we also find[4] the expression “Shabbos for Hashem”. There it clearly means for the sake of Hashem[5], so that’s what it should mean here. The Ramban[6] has a problem with this, since we know the Festivals are also for the sake of Hashem. Yet, we don’t find the phrase “Shabbos for Hashem” associated with any of them. Is there any other way to understand this phrase[7]?

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Vayakhel/Pekudei 5780

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Filling a need or needing to fill[1]

והנשיאם הביאו את אבני השהם ואת אבני המלאים לאפוד ולחשן
The princes brought the shosham stones and the filling stones for the Eiphod and the Choshen[2]

This week’s parsha describes the construction of the Mishkan. It starts with a detailed listing of the donation of the materials towards building it. The entire Jewish people jumped at the opportunity to donate towards the Mishkan. There came a point when donations had to be turned down, as all of the necessary materials had already been collected[3]. The princes, the leaders of each tribe, are described as bringing precious stones for the garments of the Kohen Gadol.

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Yisro 5780

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The Fourteen Commandments[1]

לא-יהיה לך אלהים אחרים על פני: לא-תעשה לך פסל וכל-תמונה אשר בשמים ממעל ואשר בארץ מתחת ואשר במים מתחת לארץ: לא-תשתחוה להם ולא תעבדם כי אנכי יקוק אלקיך קל קנא פקד עון אבת על-בנים על-שלשים ועל-רבעים לשנאי: ועשה חסד לאלפים לאהבי ולשמרי מצותי
You shall not have other gods before Me. Do not make for yourselves any image that is in the sky from above, that is on the earth from below, and that is in the water below the earth. Don’t prostate before them nor serve them, for I am Hashem your G-d, a zealous G-d, who holds for My enemies the iniquity of the fathers on the children, for three and four generations. And who performs loving-kindness for a thousand [generations] for those who love Me and fulfill My commandments[2]

This week’s parsha contains the epic revelation at Mount Sinai. Millions of Jews gathered to meet the G-d who took them out of Egypt in order to make them His nation. As part of this grand revelation, Hashem taught the Jews what is today known as the Ten Commandments. These commandments are essentially ten umbrella mitzvos in which you can categorize all the 613 mitzvos[3]. Classically, in Rabbinical literature they’re referred to as the Ten Statements, or Ten Utterances. Each statement is its own idea, and the statements are separated in a sefer Torah by a noticeable space.

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Vayishlach 5780

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Commemorating a tragic childbirth[1]

ויהי בצאת נפשה כי מתה ותקרא שמו בן-אוני ואביו קרא-לו בנימין
As [Rochel’s] life departed (since she was dying), she called [her son’s] name Ben-Oni, [whereas] his father called him Binyamin[2]

The death of Rochel during childbirth was tragic enough on its own. However, it was further marred by what seems to be an awkward case of spousal disagreement. Rochel decides to name her second child the name Ben-Oni, which literally translated seems to mean “the son of my mourning[3]”. Her intent would appear to be to call to mind the fact that this boy was the cause of her death, which caused others to mourn for her. Yaakov had a different name which he intended to call their son, Binyamin, which literally means “the son of [my] right hand[4]”. Yaakov appears to want his son’s name to have a more positive connotation. What exactly was their disagreement? What were they both thinking?

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