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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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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Pesach 5780

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You take half, and I’ll take the other half[1]

ויקח מצה האמצעית ויבצענה לשתים ויתן חציה (הגדולה) לאחד מהמסובין לשומרה לאפיקומן ונותנים אותה תחת המפה וחציה השני ישים בין שתי השלימות
Take the middle matzah and split it into two. Give the (larger[2]) half to one of those at the seder to guard it for the Afikoman, and they put it under a cloth. The second half place among the other two complete matzos[3]

Many people have the custom to have three matzos on their seder plate[4]. While there are practical reasons to have this number[5], there’s also symbolism in the number three. A famous explanation is that they represent the three forefathers: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov[6]. The simple explanation behind this symbolism is that it was in the merit of the forefathers that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt[7]. The part of the seder known as Yachatz is where we break the middle matzah and save the larger half for the Afikoman. Is there any connection behind this symbolism, and the fact that it’s specifically the middle matzah that is broken?

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Bereishis 5780

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The eclipsed relationship[1]

ויאמר אלקים יהי מארת ברקיע השמים להבדיל בין היום ובין הלילה והיו לאתת ולמועדים ולימים ושנים
G-d said: “Let there be luminaries in the sky to separate between day and night, and they will be for signs, set times, days and years”[2]

On the fourth day of Hashem’s Six Days of Creation, we are taught that Hashem created what we know today as the Sun and the Moon. These celestial bodies, besides their other purposes, serve as practical time indicators. They’re used to distinguish between day and night, and to tell how far along it is during the day and night. As well, the Jewish Calendar is set up to rely on the lunar cycle, and the stage the Moon is in indicates how far along it is in the month. Many festivals occur during the full Moon, and the New Moon indicates the start of a new month. The Torah says that the luminaries are also for “signs”. What signs is the Torah referring to?

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Shemini 5779

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Misapplied desires[1]

ותצא אש מלפני יקוק ותאכל אותם וימתו לפני יקוק
A fire went forth from before Hashem, and consumed [Nadav and Avihu], and they died before Hashem[2]

At the conclusion of the Mishkan’s inauguration, the people were beset with tragedy. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s children, who were leaders of the Jewish people, died. They had volunteered an unrequested fire offering to Hashem, and perished instantly. The consequences of their actions seem too severe for their “crime”. Indeed, what they did seems meritorious. They were displaying their devotion to Hashem, and their joy at the opportunity to express it. As a result, many explanations[3] are given for what their real crime was.

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Pesach 5778

The Four Children[1]

1) והיה כי-תבואו אל-הארץ וגו’ ושמרתם את העבודה-הזאת, והיה כי-יאמרו אליכם בניכם מה העבודה הזאת לכם 2) והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה יקוק לי בצאתי ממצרים 3) והיה כי-ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה-זאת וגו’ 4) כי ישאלך בנך וגו’ מה העדות והחוקים וגו’‏
1) When you will come to the land…you shall observe this [Passover] service, and your sons will say to you: “What is this service to you?” 2) You shall tell your son on that day saying: “Hashem acted for me when I left Egypt because of this” 3) It shall be when your son will ask you tomorrow saying: “What’s this?” … 4) When your son will ask you… “What are the testimonies and statutes” …[2]

כנגד ארבעה בנים דברה תורה: אחד חכם, ואחד רשע, ואחד תם, ואחד שאינו יודע לשאול…רשע מה הוא אומר? מה העבודה הזאת לכם. לכם ולא לו. ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל כפר בעיקר, ואף אתה הקהה את שניו ואמור לו, בעבור זה עשה יקוק לי בצאתי ממצרים. לי ולא לו. אלו היה שם לא היה נגאל

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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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Mishpatim / Shekalim 5778

Seeking refuge[1]

ואשר לא צדה והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה
If he didn’t plan to kill [his victim], but G-d caused it to happen, then I will provide for you a place for [the killer] to find refuge[2]

There is a law in the Torah[3] that someone who unintentionally kills another Jew, must be exiled to one of the six cities of refuge in the land of Israel. This serves two purposes: to protect the killer from the vengeance of the deceased’s family[4], who will find it difficult to not take the law into their own hands, and to provide a spiritual atonement for this accidental sin[5]. However, this exile isn’t necessarily forever. It’s until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Once he dies, the inadvertent killer goes free[6]. These cities of refuge only protect the killer when all six cities are established[7]. Moshe, towards the end of his life, established the three cities on the other side of the Jordan River[8]. He knew he wouldn’t merit to enter the land of Israel proper to finish the job; nevertheless, he didn’t refrain from starting the mitzvah[9]. Yehoshua, his successor, after fourteen years of conquest and dividing the land of Israel, established the final three[10]. It comes out from this that for those fourteen years, someone who accidentally killed another, had no safe haven. They were vulnerable that whole time. Why didn’t the Torah provide them refuge as well[11]?

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Vayechi 5778

Correcting a blemish[1]

ויקרא יעקב אל-בניו ויאמר האספו ואגידה לכם את אשר-יקרא אתכם באחרית הימים
Yaakov called out to his sons: “Gather together and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days”[2]

When Yaakov fell ill, he knew his end was near. He decided that as this might be his final opportunity, he would reveal to his children their ultimate fate[3]. As they gathered to hear his words, his power of prophecy suddenly left him[4]. Yaakov was disturbed how this could happen. He felt it must be because of one of his children. Just like Avraham had two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, one good and one bad, and Yitzchak had two sons, Yaakov and Eisav, one good and one bad, Yaakov worried maybe one of his children had turned rotten[5]. He asked if any of them had any complaints against Hashem[6]. Perhaps their faith wasn’t as strong as he thought. His children responded in unison: “Hear O Israel[7]! Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One”[8]. “Just like in your heart there is only One, so too in our hearts there is only One”. “Just like you have nothing in your heart against Hashem, neither do we”. Yaakov, delighted at this response, called out “Blessed is the name of His Glorious Kingdom forever!”. When Yaakov suspected his children of wrongdoing, why did he specifically suspect them of having a faith problem? Maybe it was something else?

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Vayeishev 5778

It wasn’t a coincidence[1]

…הכר-נא הכתונת בנך הוא אם-לא: …הכר-נא למי החתמת והפתילים והמטה האלה
Yehudah[2]: “…Please identify if this coat belongs to [Yosef] or not”.
Tamar: “… Please identify who owns this seal, cloak and staff”[3]

After Yaakov’s sons decided to sell their brother Yosef into slavery, they had to create a coverup story to tell their father[4]. They decided to take Yosef’s coat, dip it in goat’s blood, and show it to their father. He would hopefully intuit Yosef was dead. Yehudah asked his father if he recognized the coat, and Yaakov assumed a wild animal had eaten Yosef. He was devastated by this news, and refused to accept any comfort from his family. Twelve years later[5] a seemingly unconnected story occurs with Yehudah[6].

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