Shemini / Parah 5782

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The puzzling paradox of the crimson cow[1]

זאת חקת התורה אשר-צוה יקוק לאמר דבר אל-בני ישראל ויקחו אליך פרה אדמה תמימה אשר אין-בה מום אשר לא-עלה עליה על
This is the decree of the Torah, which Hashem commanded, saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel, and take for yourselves a completely red heifer, that has no blemish, one which has not had a yoke placed on it”[2]

The shabbos after Purim[3] is called parshas Parah, the parsha of the cow. It receives this title because on it we read about the parah adumah, the red heifer[4]. Before the holiday of Pesach, the Jewish people would need to become spiritually pure. Sometimes it would be necessary to use the ashes of a completely red heifer. The sprinkling of these ashes onto the impure person would enable them to bring their Pesach offering. We read this parsha to remind the Jewish people to become pure before the Festival[5].

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Vayikra / Zachor 5782

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King Shaul’s error[1]

ויבא שמואל אל-שאול ויאמר לו שאול ברוך אתה ליקוק הקימתי את-דבר יקוק: ויאמר שמואל ומה קול-הצאן הזה באזני וקול הבקר אשר אנכי שמע וגו’ הלוא אם-קטן אתה בעיניך ראש שבטי ישראל אתה וגו’‏
Shmuel came to Shaul, and Shaul said to him: “You are blessed to Hashem! I have fulfilled the word of Hashem”. Shmuel said: “Then what is this sound of the sheep that is in my ears? And the sound of the cattle which I hear? … You may be small in your eyes, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel!…[2]

The haftarah for parshas Zachor details the failure of King Shaul to eradicate the wicked nation of Amalek. Shmuel the prophet ordered Shaul to leave no person or animal alive, as Hashem told Moshe[3] that we are to blot out the memory of Amalek. Shaul however left alive the king of Amalek known as Agag, the ancestor to Haman[4]. He also left alive their sheep and cows, intending to bring them as offerings for Hashem. Shmuel harshly reprimanded Shaul for his failure, and Shaul lost the kingship as a result of his sin.

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Terumah 5782

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Permanent poles and constant candles[1]

בטבעת הארן יהיו הבדים לא יסרו ממנו
The poles shall remain in the rings of the Aron; they shall not be removed from it[2]

The Mishkan, also known as the Tabernacle, was the Jews’ portable Temple in the wilderness. When they encamped, they would construct it according to the Divine architecture given over by Moshe. When they would travel, they would pack everything up. Many of the vessels in this portable Temple had poles to allow easy transportation. Designated families of the Leviim would be tasked with carrying these vessels on their shoulders via these poles.

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Tzav 5780

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Elevation with ash removal[1]

צו את-אהרן ואת-בניו לאמר זאת תורה העלה היא העלה וגו’ ואש המזבח תוקד בו: ולבש הכהן וגו’ והרים את-הדשן וגו’ והאש על-המזבח תוקד-בו וגו’‏
Command Aharon and his sons, saying: “This is the law of the Olah offering. It is the Olah…the fire of the altar should be ignited by it. The Kohen will adorn…he will lift the ash [off the alter]…The fire on the altar shall remain burning…[2]

The Olah offering is one of the many kinds of offerings in the Temple. It’s called an Olah offering because of what makes it unique. It’s entirely consumed by the altar fire. No person is permitted to eat from its flesh. Olah means elevation, as the offering is considered to entirely elevate towards Heaven. The Torah states that it is about to detail the laws of the Olah offering, and then proceeds to discuss something else entirely. There’s a mitzvah for the Kohen to scoop up the ash from the altar once a day and place it on the side of the altar. This is known as terumas hadeshen. There’s also a mitzvah to put wood on the altar so the fire doesn’t extinguish. Instead of the Torah describing the laws of the Olah[3], it details these two mitzvos. Why then does it give this seemingly misleading introduction?

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Chukas 5778

The mystery of the red heifer[1]

וידבר יקוק אל-משה ואל אהרן לאמר: זאת חקת התורה אשר-צוה יקוק לאמר דבר אל-בני ישראל ויחקו אליך פרה אדומה תמימה וגו’‏
Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying: “This is the decree of the Torah, that Hashem commanded to say: ‘Tell the Jewish people to take towards you a perfectly[2] red heifer’”[3]

The Torah teaches us[4] about the laws of spiritual impurity caused by contact with the dead. There is a single remedy for a person to purify themselves: the ashes of a perfectly red heifer. The Torah details its preparation, and how and when it is applied to a person. We are taught that this mitzvah is the prototypical chok, or decree, from Hashem. This category of mitzvos are those to which the underlying reasoning alludes us. What is the chok of the red heifer? All those who prepare and apply the ashes of the red heifer become spiritual impure, whereas the person who is treated with them becomes pure[5]. How could these two opposites coexist? This is something only[6] Moshe understood fully[7], until the End of Days when its secrets will be revealed to all[8]. For us now, it is viewed as a chok; something we have to accept and await the day when we will finally understand it[9]. One could ask a basic question on this idea: since the red heifer does in fact have an underlying reason, why is it eluded from us? Why reveal it only to Moshe, especially since it will eventually be explained to everyone[10]?

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Korach 5778

Faulty logic and string theory[1]

ויקח קרח וגו’ ודתן ואבירם וגו’ ואון וגו’ ויקמו לפני משה ואנשים מבני-ישראל חמשים ומאתים וגו’‏
Korach took [his tallis][2] …and Dasan and Aviram…and Ohn…they and two-hundred and fifty men from the Jewish people confronted Moshe…[3]

This week’s parsha details the rebellion of Korach. He challenged the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, convincing a group of the greatest sages of Israel to join his cause. To kick off his rebellion, he took a tallis which was entirely dyed techeiles[4], a blueish color. He had two-hundred and fifty of his men wear[5] a similar garment in front of Moshe[6]. Since a tallis with tzitzis requires some of its strings to be dyed techeiles[7], Korach asked Moshe: “This tallis, whose material is entirely colored techeiles, do some of its strings need to be dyed techeiles as well”? Moshe responded: “They do”. Korach rejected this ruling, and argued that if just some strings of techeiles fulfill the requirement, having the entire garment be techeiles should be more than sufficient[8]. How did Korach think Moshe would respond? If Korach felt that the tallis was exempt from techeiles strings, maybe Moshe would agree, and there would be no conflict. And if despite the argument to exempt, Korach had some counterargument, maybe Moshe would provide the same one[9]. As well, why did Korach specifically pick this topic to start his rebellion?

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Vayeitzei 5778

The Torah is not in Heaven[1]

ויעש יעקב כן וימלא שבע זאת ויתן-לו את-רחל בתו לו לאשה
Yaakov [celebrated his marriage to Leah][2]. [When] the week was complete [Lavan] gave his daughter Rachel to [Yaakov] to be his wife[3]

After working seven years for Lavan for the right to marry his daughter Rachel, Yaakov was tricked. He thought he was being given Rachel as a bride, but after all was said and done he realized he had married Leah[4], Rachel’s sister. Lavan tried to justify his treachery, and concluded that Yaakov could marry Rachel as well once the week of celebrations ended. Yaakov did so, and thus was married to both sisters. Many authorities assume the Avos, the patriarchs, kept the entirety of the Torah before it was given[5]. This is based on various allusions to such an idea[6]. However, many struggle[7] to reconcile this with the fact that the Torah explicitly prohibits[8] a man from marrying two sisters. How then could Yaakov marry two sisters, which the Torah explains usually leads to strife?

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Ki Seitzei 5777

Sending away the mother bird[1]

כי יקרא קן-צפור לפניך בדרך בכל-עץ או על-הארץ אפרחים או ביצים והאם רבצת על-האפרחים או על-הביצים לא-תקח האם על-הבנים: שלח תשלח את-האם ואת-הבנים תקח-לך למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים
When you chance upon a bird’s nest on the way, on any tree or on the ground, [with] chicks or eggs, and the mother bird is crouching on the chicks or on the eggs, don’t take the mother bird with her children[2]. [Rather][3], send away the mother bird, and [then] take the children for yourself, in order that it should be good for you and for Him to lengthen your days[4]

This week’s parsha introduces a very exotic mitzvah. If a person finds a bird’s nest with either chicks or eggs, it is prohibited to take the mother bird along with her children2. The Torah commands that first the finder must send away the mother bird, and only then take the children3. As with many mitzvos, there are various explanations among the commentators as to the purpose behind this mitzvah. Why did Hashem command us to send away the mother bird?

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Vaeschanan 5777

What are totafos?[1]

וקשרתם לאות על ידך והיו לטטפת בין עיניך
You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and they shall be totafos between your eyes[2]

The Torah when it describes the mitzvah of tefillin[3] describes them as being a sign on your arm and as totafos between your eyes[4]. The word totafos is hard to translate. Menachem Ibn Seruk, a tenth-century Spanish-Jewish philologist often quoted by Rashi[5], relates it to the verse והטף אל דרום, and speak to the south[6]. This verse tells us that the word totafos connotes speech. Tefillin are meant to be understood as a reminder[7]: that people will see the tefillin on a person’s head, remember the miracles of Egypt and begin to speak about them[8]. This is because two of the parshiyos, paragraphs, written in the tefillin discuss the Exodus from Egypt. In a simpler fashion, Ramban writes[9] that totafos is just the name that the Torah gave to the head tefillin.

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Acharei Mos-Kedoshim 5777

The forbidden fruit[1]

וכי-תבאו אל-הארץ ונטעתם כל-עץ מאכל וערלתם ערלתו את-פריו שלש שנים יהיה לכם ערלים לא יאכל; ובשנה הרעיעת יהיה כל-פריו קדש הלולים ליקוק
When you come to the land and plant any fruit-bearing tree, you’ll consider its fruit orlah, it will be orlah for three years and not be eaten. And in the fourth year all of its fruit will be holy, a praise[2] to Hashem[3]

This week’s parsha introduces a unique prohibition to fruit trees. The fruit they bear cannot be eaten by Jews for the first three years after it is planted. This prohibition is known as orlah, related to the Hebrew word for blockage[4], meaning the fruit is blocked from consumption[5]. During the entire fourth year of the tree all of its fruit is considered holy, and must be brought to Jerusalem for consumption[6]. Afterwards, the fruit may be eaten and treated normally. What are the reasons for this mitzvah? What is its purpose, and what is it trying to teach us?

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