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Parsha Beha’alotcha – 5777

Parshat Beha’alotcha In-Depth

“Aaron did not bring an offering (for the Sanctuary’s dedication—see previous Parshah) with the other princes of the tribes, and so he thought: Woe is me! Perhaps it is on my account that G‑d does not accept the tribe of Levi? G‑d therefore said to Moses: ‘Go and say to Aaron: Fear not, you have in store for you an honor greater than this . . . : the offerings shall remain in force only as long as the Temple stands, but the lamps shall always give light . . .’ (Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)

Were not the lamps of the menorah also extinguished with the destruction of the Holy Temple? But this alludes to the Chanukah lights, which were instituted in the time of the Second Temple by the Hasmoneans, descendents of Aaron, and which did not cease. (Nachmanides)”

Torah Sparks: Beha’alotcha 5777

“The story is told of a young monk who joins a silent monastery. The rules are simple, the abbot tells him. ‘You can speak two words every ten years.’ After ten years the young monk says “Bed hard.” Ten years later, ‘Food bad.’ After 30 years he tells the abbot, “I quit.” The senior monk looks at him and says, ‘I’m not surprised. You’ve been complaining ever since you got here.’ We can pretty safely assume the monk in the story was not Jewish – his first complaint is not about the food.

For me Baha’alotḥa is the saddest parashah in the Torah. It begins gloriously – the Menorah is prepared, the silver trumpets readied for the departure from Sinai, the Fiery Cloud is in place to lead them to the land ‘the Lord spoke of.’ The first ten chapters of Numbers have the air of a new beginning, all running to plan. The Divine plan, according to Rashi (10:29 and 10:32), was to bring them to Israel ‘in three days.'”

If You Missed It the First Time

“Have you ever used one of those apps that counts down to a special event? Whether it is a wedding or a concert, you can check your phone and see how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the big moment of anticipation.

But what happens if the moment comes and you can’t be there?

B’haalot’cha addresses a few reasons why people might not show up and provides a second chance for them.

In Numbers 9:7 some people who cannot offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time approach Moses saying what amounts to, ‘We want to bring a sanctified offering to God. It isn’t fair that we are not allowed to do it.’

They were not allowed because they had been in contact with a corpse, but God answers for anyone who has physical or spiritual limitations that keep them from observing the sacrifice. The answer is that they can still participate, but a month later on a day called Pesach Sheni — the Second Passover.”

Be Careful What You Wish For

“It seems to come from nowhere: a craving—perhaps to devour ice cream, to gossip, to mindlessly watch TV, to have sex, or to make fun of another person. Ah, it’s a long list—all the urges in our lives!

Sudden and strong impulses can be confusing. If what I long for may not itself be bad, then why deny it? Or, if my craving is in fact harmful, why do I feel like doing something I will regret later? On one hand, shouldn’t I celebrate my true feelings? On the other hand, shouldn’t I be ashamed of feeling this way?

A tale in Numbers chapter 11 may put our urges into perspective. There, the Israelites — recently escaped slaves — are on vacation. All their basic needs are met. Free meals. They don’t have to get up each morning and go to work or off to school. Yet the Israelites begin whining about food. They crave meat rather than manna; they yearn for variety in their diet: ‘Our lives are like a desert—there is nothing but this manna to look to!'”

Haftarah Parshat Beha’alotcha

“Zechariah is a prophet who yearns for the universal recognition of God. He is well aware that the world is not perfect and that the situation as it is does not provide the signs and wonders which might bring about the realization of God’s rule in the world. In his vision, he prophesizes the day when this might happen: “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord! For He is aroused (ne’or) from His holy habitation.” (2:17)

The word “ne’or” derives the verb root “ayin vav reish” meaning “to wake up” or “to rise up”. What will wake God up, as it were, that will be recognized by all? The consensus among the medieval commentators is that God will arise to save Israel and bring justice to its enemies. In other words, God’s recognition is conditional on His saving His people from their enemies.”

Parsha Naso – 5777

Parshat Naso In-Depth

“The priest shall write these oaths in a scroll, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water (5:23)

Great is peace! To make peace between husband and wife, the Torah instructs that the name of G‑d, written in holiness, should be blotted out in water. (The text of the oath administered to the sotah included the divine name.) (Talmud, Chullin 141a)

It shall come to pass: if the woman had been defiled . . . her belly will swell and her thigh will rupture (5:27)

Just as the waters test her, they also test him (i.e., if she is guilty, the same happens to the adulterer). (Talmud, Sotah 27b)”

Torah Sparks: Naso 5777

“Parshat Naso contains the famous law of the Sotah (Num. 5:11-31), the woman who is suspected by her husband of having committed adultery. In such a case her husband can bring her to the priest (kohen) and she will be forced to drink a strange concoction of water, dirt from the Tabernacle floor and curses containing God’s name ground into little pieces, known as the “bitter waters” (mei ha-marim).

Once the woman drinks this potion there are two options: If she is guilty “the water that causes the curse will enter into her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, and her thigh will fall away; and the woman shall be a curse among her people.” If she is innocent “then she shall be cleared, and will conceive seed” (vs. 27-28).”

Justice and Mercy Are Jewish Love

“When was the last time I made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself? Just asking the question, without even making a list or acting upon it, can cause some consternation. After all, who among us hasn’t crossed a line, fallen back, or hurt others with our choices? If I consider the ways I have sinned against others — those I love and those I don’t — how can I put myself back on track?

Those familiar with the 12 steps for addiction recovery, first introduced by Alcoholics Anonymous, recognize taking a moral inventory as the fourth step. I learned from Harriet Rossetto, co-founder of Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, that everyone can benefit from following the 12 steps and living as if we are in recovery. The notion of making a fearless moral inventory, and the subsequent steps of what to do with our realizations, are in line with how we live as just and merciful people trying to follow Judaism.”

The Nazirite

“Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah yields 613 commandments, which are incumbent on the Jewish people. One would think that this daunting total would be sufficient for most Jews, yet this week’s Torah portion, Naso, teaches of additional regulations which one could assume under the status of being a “Nazirite”, one consecrated to the service of God. The haftara (additional) reading for this Shabbat narrates the story of Sampson, who according to the Bible was himself a Nazirite.

The biblical information about Nazirites is inconsistent, and the Torah and haftara portions for this week indicate the instability. In the sixth chapter of Numbers, the Torah teaches that one who wishes to become a Nazirite does so through the following rituals: the taking of a vow, the avoidance of grape products (especially wine), abstaining from cutting of the hair, and keeping adequate distance from a corpse (a prohibition normally only incumbent on Kohanim, descendents of the line of Aaron.) ”

Haftarah Parshat Naso

“The heroine of this week’s haftarah, Samson’s mother, remains nameless even though she is the primary character in the story. Professor Y. Zakovitch has suggested that her anonymity was intended to make the character of Samson stand out by minimalizing his familial ties (Hayei Shimshon, p. 25). I have previously suggested that some biblical stories give anonymous characters pronounced roles as a lesson in the significance of every individual no matter their place in society.

Still, anonymity in biblical literature is a phenomenon that seemingly bothered the rabbinic sages. Professor Y. Heineman, in his classic work Darchei HaAgaddah, has pointed out that it is not uncommon in rabbinic literature for the sages to identify a character in the Bible by either giving the person a name or associating a person with a previously known character. This phenomenon was probably influenced by the style of storytelling familiar to them in the Greco-Roman period. (p.21)”

Parsha Bamidbar – 5777

Parshat Bamidbar In-Depth

“G‑d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai (Numbers 1:1)

The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it. (Mechilta d’Rashbi)”

Torah Sparks: Bamidbar 5777

“Numbers (Sefer Bemidbar) plays a game familiar to anyone who knows Jews. What is the first thing a Jew does when meeting another Jew? We play Jewish geography. Where are you from? we ask. Do you know so and so?

Some things never change.

The Hebrew Bible is about a lot of things—you could say it’s about everything—but one thing that it cares about a great deal is setting up the trusted network of what eventually comes to be known as the Jewish people.”

Taking a Census to Ensure Success

“Saying a person’s name correctly is a way of recognizing his or her individuality. Most of us appreciate when someone we hardly know remembers meeting us and calls us by name; it is an affirmation that we matter. When I meet someone new and introduce myself, often the person looks confused over how to pronounce my first name, asking “would you repeat that?” or “how do you spell that?” I have learned to say, “Vered rhymes with Jared, but with a V.” After the mnemonic, my name is almost always said correctly. It may seem small, but it is a way of acknowledging that I matter.”

Nachshon: Did He Jump Or Was He Pushed?

“At first glance this week’s parashah, Bemidbar, seems rather tedious. After all, it consists mainly of the names of the heads of all the tribes, given in the context of a census of the Israelites taking place about a year after the events at Mount Sinai. However, one name in the census jumped out at me: Nachshon ben Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Judah. Nachshon is a very famous character in the Midrash even though he is barely mentioned in the Torah.”

Haftarah Parshat Bamidbar

“For the prophet Hosea, the relationship between God and Israel wavered between fealty and disloyalty. God’s relationship with Israel was compared by him to a marriage between a husband and a disloyal wife. The purpose of his message, obviously, was to encourage a faithfulness in the relationship between God and Israel. To this purpose, Hosea concluded this message with the now often quoted betrothal anthem: ‘And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness (b’emunah); then you shall be devoted to the Lord.’ (2:21-22)”

Parsha Behar-Bechukotai – 5777

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai In-Depth

“G‑d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying . . . (Leviticus 25:1)

What has the Sabbatical year to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all commandments given on Sinai? But the verse wishes to tell us: just as with the Sabbatical year both its general principle and its minute details were ordained on Mount Sinai, so, too, was it with all the commandments—their general principles as well as their minute details were ordained on Mount Sinai. (Torat Kohanim; Rashi)

Rabbi Ishmael says: The general principles of the Torah were given at Sinai, and the details [when G‑d spoke to Moses] in the Tent of Meeting.

Rabbi Akiva says: The general principles and the details were given at Sinai. They were then repeated in the Tent of Meeting, and enjoined a third time in the Plains of Moab (i.e., in Moses’ narrative in the book of Deuteronomy). (Talmud, Chagigah 6a–b)”

Torah Sparks: Behar-Behukkotai 5777

“‘And the Lord spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai,’ Parshat Behar begins, enumerating the laws of shmita, the release of the land every seven years. That sounds quite simple, but Rashi here makes perhaps the most famous of all his comments on the Torah – Mah inyan shmitah etsel Har Sinai? “What is the connection of the laws of shmita to Mount Sinai?” Rashi’s comment has become a coin of Hebrew parlance for a non-sequitur, “what does this have to do with that?” But Rashi did not mean it in a casual fashion, and he answers himself – just as the laws and rules about Shmita came from Har Sinai, so did all the mitsvot come from Har Sinai (i.e. from God).”

Liberty and Freedom From Religion in America

“The Liberty Bell holds special fascination for American Jews, especially those of us who live in Philadelphia. For years, we lived happily with the knowledge that the Liberty Bell had been cast in England and brought to America in 1752 on a ship called the Myrtilla owned by two local Jewish shippers, Nathan Levy (the founder of the Philadelphia Jewish community) and David Franks (later one of the city’s leading Tories during the American Revolution). For better or worse, recent scholarship has changed all that and we now know conclusively that the bell was aboard a different boat, the Hibernia, captained by William Child but of unknown ownership. Moreover, the Hibernia’s docking was recorded on September 1 and the Myrtilla did not drop anchor until the end of the month.”

Blessings and Curses

“At the end of the traditional Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after the Meal, is a verse from the Book of Psalms that reads, “Once I was young and now I have grown old but I have never seen a righteous person abandoned nor his children begging for food” (Psalm 37:25). It is one of a series of biblical verses acknowledging God as the one who sustains all. There are many ways to sing the verse but I was taught to drop my voice when I came to this passage and recite it in a whisper. Why? Because it is not an accurate statement of life as we know it and it may be a source of pain to one with whom we may have eaten.”

Haftarah Parshat Behar-Behukotai

“Idolatry apparently had great allure to many ancient Israelites. This should not be surprising coming from a little people stuck in the midst of a good many larger civilizations. The pressures to conform to the larger cultures or to syncretistically borrow from them were probably great. This was no small problem for the prophets who were advocates for the ideal of total loyalty to the God of Israel. Jeremiah saw in these religious borrowings and the people’s passion for them a primary cause of the nation’s downfall: “As those who remember their children, so they longed for their altars, and their graves by the green trees on the high hills. You who sit upon the mountain in the field, I will give your substance and all your treasures for a spoil, and your high places, because of sin, throughout all thy borders.” (16:20-21 – according to the Talmud’s understanding of the verses)”

Parsha Emor – 5777

Parshat Emor In-Depth

“Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them . . . (Leviticus 21:1)

“Speak” and “say”—enjoin the elders regarding the youngsters. (Talmud; Rashi)

The above dictum, which constitutes a primary biblical source for the concept of education, also offers insight into the nature of education.

The word used by the Talmud and Rashi—lehazhir, “to enjoin”—also means “to shine.” Hence the phrase “to enjoin the elders regarding the youngsters” also translates as “to illuminate the elders regarding the youngsters.” Education is not only an elder teaching a youngster; it is also an illumination for the educator. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe)”

Torah Sparks: Emor 5777

“Rabbi Yitzchak Karo explains, in his commentary Toldot Yitzchak, why the laws of blasphemy are located here, following a series of laws about the sanctity of the priesthood, sacrifices, Shabbat and Holydays, and certain ritual items in the Mishkan. He explains that the blasphemer comes and ‘repudiates all – the offerer, the sacrifice, and the very existence of God, by blaspheming, as if there is no Law and Judge.'”

From Blasphemy to Blasphemous: An Instructive Transition

“On January 24, 1656, Jacob Lumbrozo, a Portuguese-born doctor and businessman, became the first documented Jew to settle in the Catholic colony of Maryland. Two years later, under provisions of the colony’s ironically named Toleration Act of 1649, which extended freedom of religion exclusively to Trinitarian Christians, Lumbrozo, himself a litigious person, was charged with blasphemy. He faced both severe economic sanctions and even punishment by death. Ten days after his trial began a general amnesty on such matters was proclaimed in England by the government of Richard Cromwell. The proceedings in Maryland were immediately terminated and the doctor was allowed to go free.”

An Eye For An Eye

“One of my recurring themes in my writings is the effort to demonstrate the evolving nature of Jewish tradition. Even though the Torah is our fixed and sacred literature, it serves not as the last word but as the foundation of a legal and ethical tradition that emerged as early as 500 B.C.E. and continues to this day. I think it is necessary to continue to remind us of this fact because of the durable stereotype that much Christian thought foists upon the Jews: Judaism is the religion of law, while Christianity is the religion of love. In that telling, when Christianity emerged, Judaism somehow became frozen in time, rejecting the New Testament, forever stranded in the obsolete ancient paradigm of harsh justice that Christianity was here to transcend.”

Haftarah Parshat Emor

“The first part of Parshat Emor in the Torah contains laws ostensibly aimed at the Kohanim (Priests). It contains special laws regarding ritual impurity especially aimed at the priests as well as marital proscriptions. The prophet Ezekiel, a priest himself, recounts further regulations for priests in his prophecy concerning the future Temple. Some of these regulations proved problematic to the rabbinic sages because they seemingly contradicted laws of the Torah. One, in particular, the last verse of the haftarah was especially surprising: “Priests shall not eat anything, whether bird or animal, that died (nevelah) or was torn by beasts (terefah).” (34:31)”

Parsha Achrei Mot-Kedoshim – 5777

Parshat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim In-Depth

“After the death of the two sons of Aaron (Leviticus 16:1)

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah would explain this with a parable. A sick person was visited by a physician, who said to him: “Do not eat cold food and do not lie in the damp, lest you die.” There then came a second physician, who said to him: “Do not eat cold food and do not lie in the damp, lest you die as so-and-so died.” The second one influences him more than the first. Thus it says: “After the death of the two sons of Aaron.” (Rashi)”

Torah Sparks: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim 5777

“We are warned: “Do not profane your daughter to make a whore of her, lest the land play the whore and the land be filled with depravity” (Lev. 19:29). This being Leviticus, we may read this as a warning against sending our daughters into cultic prostitution. There is no evidence, though, of sex with strangers as a sacred rite to increase fertility in the ancient Near East. That, then, is not the behavior banned by this verse.

What, then, are we to avoid imposing on our daughters, and presumably discourage them from doing even at their own initiative?”

What Judaism Says About the Golden Rule

“For the last few years, I have been a member of a local hospital’s ethics committee. The hospital is part of a university-based system and the committee’s chair is a scholarly pulmonologist with a propensity to pick cases involving life and death choices. Other members include nurses, medical specialists, administrators, and social workers. I am the only clergy member of the group. The literature we review is mostly derived from case histories written by medical doctors and generally balances such diverse factors as medical practice, hospital liability, economics, patient rights, and culture. Our purpose is not to advise but rather to review past cases, many with close parallels in our hospital.”

Life, Death and Holiness

“Tears and hope, fears and resolve, profound sadness and fierce determination – that is the mood in Israel this week. How ironic that this week’s double Torah portion is called “Akharey Mot/Kedoshim”, which translates as “After death — Holiness.”

I stood on the balcony of a relative’s apartment directly overlooking the Moment Café, where just a couple of weeks ago a homicide bomber blew himself up killing 11 Israelis, including a young couple celebrating their impending wedding. Amidst the rubble and devastation, the flowers and candles left by mourners was a defiant and poignant banner that captured like nothing else the grief and resolve of our Jewish family in Israel who face uncertainty and sorrow every single day. The banner proclaimed, “bokhim, bokhim, bokhim, ve-hamshikh ha-lah” – “We cry, we cry, we cry….and then we continue to go on.” After all the deaths, they are still searching for the holiness.”

Haftarah Parshat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

“This brief haftarah of eight sentences completes the book of Amos. It seemingly contains two diametrically opposite messages. It begins by reminding the people that when it comes to improper behavior, their special status as God’s chosen will not allow them to avoid punishment. (7-10) This message is followed immediately by a vision of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the reestablishment of the nation in its own homeland under idyllic conditions which will reign in perpetuity. This lack of symmetry in Amos’ message has led some modern scholars to assert that the later message must be an addendum appended to the book so that it might end on a positive note. (S. Paul notes that this is the point of view of the infamous 18th-19th century German Bible critic, Julius Wellhausen. See Amos, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 144-5)”

Parsha Tazria-Metzora – 5777

Parshat Tazria-Metzora In-Depth

“G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: . . . A woman who shall seed and give birth (Leviticus 12:1–2)

Rabbi Simlai said: Just as man’s creation was after that of cattle, beasts and birds, so too the laws concerning his [ritual impurity and purity] come after those concerning [the impurity and purity of] cattle, beasts and birds. Thus it is what is written (Leviticus 11:46–47), “This is the law of the beasts and of the birds and of every living creature . . . to differentiate between the impure and the pure”; and immediately thereafter, “A woman who shall seed . . .”

Why was man created last among the creations? So that if he is not meritorious, we say to him: “A gnat preceded you, a snail preceded you.” (Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)”

Torah Sparks: Tazria-Metsora 5777

“The book of Leviticus (Sefer Vayikra) entails many difficulties for the modern reader. First, it can easily be conceived as a cluster of ritual laws that have little to do with our modern Jewish experience. Second, the priestly image of the world depicted in it seems quite detached from our world outlook; for example, the forces of purity and impurity that play such a fundamental role in the metaphysics of Leviticus. Though they can still be relevant in some areas of our lives, their influence has diminished significantly over the centuries, for many reasons.”

Judaism, Medical Science, and Spirituality: A Brief History

“It rarely fails. B’nei mitzvah families come to me three, four, five years in advance. “Is it possible,” they ask, “that our child not be assigned the portion in the Torah on leprosy? We’re just not sure,” they continue somewhat disingenuously, “it will be meaningful.” So, we talk about leprosy as metaphor and explore questions like, “what is the leprosy of our era?” and the parental anxiety slowly relaxes. By contrast, only twice in 30 years families came to me and actually asked to be assigned the portion that discusses leprosy, Tazria. “Why?” I ask them. Both times either one or both parents were dermatologists eager to accept the portion, and equally ready to disprove the biblical diagnosis and suggest an alternate skin disease.”

Tzara’at and Selfishness

“Parshat Metzora deals with a peculiar condition called tzara’at that afflicts skin, surfaces of walls and clothing. This condition has long been erroneously translated into English as “leprosy.” However, tzara’at is not Hansen’s Disease, the clinical name for leprosy. For starters, the symptoms are not at all similar. Moreover, the rules associated with tzara’at do not make sense if the disease is contagious. For example, while someone whose skin is partially covered with the lesions of tzara’at is considered ritually unclean (tamei), a person who is entirely covered with the malady is not! Moreover, the malady affects architecture as well as skin: if the walls of a house show tzara’at then all of the contents of the home are put outside! (Leviticus 14:26). This is not the way to halt the spread of a contagious illness people are afraid of contracting. Rather, our ancestors in the ancient world saw it as an external symptom of a spiritual, even social malady. It is through this lens — not a contemporary perspective of infectious disease — that we can find some meaning in the study of tzara’at today. ”

Haftarah Parshat Tazria-Metzora

“The heroes of this week’s haftarah are in a tragic situation. It was not enough that they were lepers, forced to live outside of the walls of the city on account of their condition, they were equally threatened by the Aramean army which had laid siege to the city, leaving the city’s inhabitants in a state of famine. None of their alternatives were satisfactory. If they entered the city, they would be subject to the famine which faced the inhabitants of the city. Their only other alternative was to enter the enemy camp and fall on its mercy. This obviously also had its risks. What were these poor souls to do? Their dialogue informs us of their decision: “Why sit here until we die? If we say we will enter into the city, then the famine is in the city; and if we sit here, we also die. Now therefore, let us fall on the Aramean camp; if they allow us to live, we will live and if they kill us, we will die.” (7:4-5) Miraculously for them, the enemy had abandoned their encampment, allowing the lepers to find the food they so desperately needed.”

Parsha Shemini – 5777

Parshat Shemini In-Depth

“It came to pass on the eighth day (Leviticus 9:1)

That day took ten crowns: It was the first day of creation (i.e., a Sunday), the first for the offerings of the nesi’im (tribal heads), the first for the priesthood, the first for [public] sacrifice, the first for the fall of fire from heaven, the first for the eating of sacred food, the first for the dwelling of the Divine Presence in Israel, the first for the priestly blessing of Israel, the first day on which it was forbidden to sacrifice to G‑d anywhere but in the Sanctuary, and the first of months. (Talmud, Shabbat 87b)

That day was as joyous to G‑d as the day on which heaven and earth were created. (Talmud, Megillah 10b)”

Torah Sparks: Shemini 5777

“In this week’s sedra we find the strange episode of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who apparently made some kind of sacrifice using what the Torah calls eish zara – “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1). We are told that the manner in which this sacrifice was offered broke God’s rules and, as a result, Nadav and Avihu were themselves summarily executed, ‘consumed by fire which came forth from the Lord (10:2).'”

You Are What You Eat: The New World of Kosher Food

“Thousands of years before the 19th-century saying, “you are what you eat” came into being, Judaism recognized the essential significance of food in the Jewish and human experience. Originally, without explaining “why” we should eat some, but not all types of different foods, the Torah in this week’s portion, Sh’mini (Leviticus 11), laid down a lengthy list of culinary dos and don’ts, the textual foundation of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice and law. Subsequently, the laws of kashrut were greatly expanded by the Rabbis to include food preparation in general and, especially, on the Sabbath, the full separation of milk and meat products, methods of slaughter, and a whole range of food regulations during Passover.”

Strange Fire: A Midrash

“The time had finally arrived. The animals had been slaughtered exactly as God had commanded. They had been placed on the altar. Now they had only to wait.

Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons Elazar, Ithamar, Nadav and Avihu had followed God’s instructions as relayed to them through Aaron’s brother Moses; now they were to see the results of their actions. For the first time they were making a sacrifice on behalf of the people in the newly dedicated Mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary.”

Haftarah Parshat Shemini

“Biblical stories are wont to remind us that nothing in life is uncomplicated. Triumph is frequently mixed with tragedy and joy with animosity. The haftarah opens with David’s attempt to return the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. This trek is marred by the tragic death of Uzza, who for some undetermined reason is struck down while trying to save the Ark from falling off the cart on which it was transported. When David finally accomplishes his mission and the Ark is brought to Jerusalem, he parades the Ark into the city with great fanfare, leading the tumultuous celebration himself with wild ecstatic dancing before the assembled crowds. This frenzied dancing infuriated David’s long abandoned wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul, David’s predecessor: “Michal, the daughter of Saul look out through the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord, and she scorned him in her heart.” (6:16)”

Parsha Tzav – 5777

Parshat Tzav In-Depth

“The expression tzav (“command”) implies an urging for now and for future generations. (Torat Kohanim; Rashi)

The king Moshiach will arise and restore the kingdom of David to its glory of old, to its original sovereignty. He will build the Holy Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. In his times, all the laws of the Torah will be reinstated as before; the sacrifices will be offered, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year instituted as outlined in the Torah. (Maimonides)”

Torah Sparks: Tsav 5777

“The Torah instructs that the sin-offering (korban ḥatat), associated with misdeeds, be offered in the same place (the holy of holies) as the burnt offering (korban olah), a sacrifice expressing dedication. The Ma’agelei Tsedek says this is to encourage the sinner not to be depressed, that penitence for his sins can put him in the same place before God as the tsadik. R’ Yisrael Salanter (1809 – 1883, Lithuania/Germany, father of the Musar movement) said that the korban olah actually comes to atone for sinful thoughts, and where one repents for sinful actions one should repent for sinful thoughts, since they so often lead to misdeeds.”

It All Depends: Finding the Middle of the Torah

“Finding the midpoint in the Torah is also a matter of considerable debate. Logically, you might think you could simply unroll a Torah scroll, measure it, and divide that number in half. Basically, that should land you somewhere in the Book of Leviticus, the third of five books of the Torah, assuming that each book of the Torah is about the same length. In fact, they are not equal. Genesis is the longest book, Leviticus is the shortest, and Exodus is longer than Deuteronomy. With the Torah weighted toward the first two books, it makes sense that the midpoint should be somewhere toward the front of the middle book. But that is about all tradition can agree upon with respect to the Torah’s centroid. Once you drill down into the details of counting the problem becomes increasingly complicated and finding the middle of the Torah, both mathematically and theologically, is no easy task. It all depends on what you mean exactly by ‘the middle of the Torah!'”

The Ascending Heart

“Yitzhak Magriso begins by asking why the phrase for one particular kind of sacrifice – an olah (burnt offering; literally a “going upward”) – is often repeated twice when a single usage of the word olah would have sufficed syntactically. The answer Me’am Loez provides is to suggest that one olah is a physical description of the burnt animal’s smoky ascent to heaven. But a second “olah” is also happening within the heart of the person bringing the sacrifice.”

Haftarah Parshat Tzav

“Human beings have a tendency to compartmentalize their behavior. Religious people are no exception. For the prophets, this was a serious problem. How could a people so dedicated to ritual service to God neglect or even oppose ethical behavior? How could they offer sacrifices with one hand and brush aside the unfortunate with the other? These paradoxes disturbed God and his messenger, Malachi, railed against them: “But first, I (God) will step forward to contend with you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.” (3:5)”

Parsha Vayikra – 5777

Parshat Vayikra In-Depth

“Said Rav Assi: Why do young children begin [the study of Torah] with the book of Leviticus, and not with Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the korbanot are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure. (Midrash Rabbah)

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (who later became the third Rebbe of Chabad) entered cheder on the day after Yom Kippur of the year 1792, eleven days after his third birthday. The child’s grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, instructed Reb Avraham the melamed to begin the first lesson with the opening verses of Vayikra. …(From the talks of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson)”

Torah Sparks: Vayikra 5777

“Parashat Vayikra begins the Torah’s discussion of sacrificial law. In introducing the various sacrifices, the Torah refers to what happens “when adam (any “person”) presents an offering of cattle to the Lord” (1:2). In contrast, one who brings a sin offering or a guilt offering is described as a nefesh, a “soul” (5:1). Why is a person who brings the sin or guilt offering not referred to also as an adam “person”? The midrash, picking up on this variation in language, offers a parable that sheds light on the nature of sin and the way we respond to our own acts of wrongdoing:

[It is like] a king who had an orchard with beautiful figs. He set two guards in it, one lame and one blind. He said to them: “Guard the figs,” and he left them there and went on his way. The lame man said to the blind man: “I see beautiful figs.” The blind man said: “Bring them here, and we’ll eat them.” The lame man said: “But I can’t walk.” The blind man said: “And I can’t see.” What did they do? The lame man rode astride the blind man and they took the figs and ate them…The king came and said: “Where are the figs?” The blind man said: “Do I see?” The lame man said: “Can I walk?” The wise king placed the lame man astride the blind one and judged them as one. (Leviticus Rabba 4:5)”

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Navigating the Book of Leviticus

“If we were to compare the Book of Exodus to a “rock” (as in Mt. Sinai) and the Book of Numbers to a “hard place” (as in the “wilderness”), then the Book of Leviticus would be somewhere “between a rock and a hard place.” My sense is that for most Reform Jews, reading the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, is more a function of calendar than choice: a tough, unavoidable literary landscape with only a few rest stops or scenic overlooks. It’s just a territory we must traverse in order to get to the next major site on our annual pilgrimage through the Five Books of Moses.”

Where Does the Spirit of Sacrifice Take Us?

“As we now begin our study of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), we start with two observations:

Even some fairly dedicated Torah learners find this the most difficult book of the Hamisha Humshei Torah (Five Books of Moses). As anyone who has worked with b’nai mitzvah students on writing divrei Torah (explanations of Torah) can attest, the focus of Vayikra on the sacrificial system leads to some quite canned and predictable b’nai mitzvah sermons in March and April. Typically they begin: “Our ancestors used to sacrifice their animals. We are not farmers or herdsman. Still everyone is called upon to sacrifice in their life…””

Haftarah Parshat Vayikra

“Most haftarot are linked to the Torah reading by some thematic idea. In the case of this week’s haftarah, the association reflects contrasting messages. The Torah reading catalogues the variety of possible sacrifices which could be offered in the Sanctuary and Temple. The haftarah points up God’s demand for religious loyalty over the offering of sacrifices. (See 43:22-28) Still, sometimes looking at the prophetic message of the haftarah in its original prophetic context might yield a message which by coincidence has relevance to the liturgical calendar.

The first verse of this week’s haftarah serves as the last verse of a prophecy whose message uses the exodus from Egypt as its theme to inspire the exiled nation that an even greater redemption is in the offing: “Thus said the Lord who made a road through the sea and a path through the mighty waters, who destroyed chariots and horses, and all the mighty host. They lay down to rise no more. They were extinguished, quenched like a wick. Do not recall what happened of old or ponder what happened of yore! I am about to do something new, even now it shall come to pass, suddenly you shall perceive it. I will make a road through the wilderan ness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts shall honor Me, jackals and ostriches for I provide water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert to give drink to My chosen people. The people that I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise.” (44:16-21)”