Vayikra – speech that leaves space for the other

March 29, 2006

"And He called to Moshe, and God spoke to him from the tent of gathering saying.  You shall speak unto the Jewish People and say to them…" (Vaykra 1:1-2)

There is a lot of speech – called, spoke, saying, speak, say – in the first two verses.  The opening comment of Rashion the opening verse of the book of Vayikra is simply awesome.  It puts both divine and human language in a different light. 

"All dibrot (speakings) and all amirot (sayings) and all  tzivuyim (commands) are predicated on a kriah (a calling) of love.  Such is the language that the angels use, as it says "And they call one to another and say (Isaiah 6:3).  However, God was revealed unto the nations of the world in a language of happenstance and impurity, as it says "And Elohim happened upon Bilaam" (Numbers 23:4).

Before analyzing the deeper message of Rashi, let us first clarify why this comment was made.  Clearly some of the words articulating speech in the first verse are extraneous.  Why doea it take three different phrases to say, "and God spoke to Moses?"  There is something about this interaction that, for Rashi, is the model for all other times when God and Moshe speak.

Rashi draws on two separate midrashim in order to address the problems that he sees in the verse.  First he quotes from the Sifra (Dibura Nedava, 1:1-7; see also Bavli, Yoma 4b) that each speaking was preceded by a calling of love.  Then Rashi refers to a Midrash from Vayikra Rabbah (1:12) comparing the way that God called Moshe to the way that God called the prophets of the non-Jewish world, ie. Bilaam.

The way that Rashi seemlessly links the two midrashim makes us wonder what they have in common.  Why is the fact that God spoke to the prophets of the Jewish People with love linked to the fact that God spoke to the prophets of the nations of the world without that love?  (See for an interesting analysis of the relationship between the two midrashim.)

I think that understanding the concept of God speaking to Moshe with love will shed light on our first question.  Why did God need to call Moshe in the first place?  When we look at the end of Sefer Shmot we note that as the Mishkan was completed Moshe's relationship with God was still, as yet, incomplete.

We are told that God's presence filled the Mishkan to such an extent that there was no space for Moshe.  (See Exodus 40:34 to end of book, see for some of where these thoughts originated, though he comes to conclusions that I can not accept.)  When God called Moshe into the Mishkan He was making space for an other.  Allowing for human existence even in the place of the divine presence.  God stepped back and left a space for Moshe to begin a dialogue.  The relationship that was created at that moment becomes that model for how we are to relate to others and to God, the ultimate Other. 

We must make space – for our spouses, children, parents, friends, community – in every interaction.  Part of the challenge of the rabbinate is to create a space where people can feel comfortable enough to tear down the inhibitions that limit out ability to connect – to connect to one another and, if we are fortunate, to connect to God.

For some that space will be the shul, for others a class room, for still others a shiva house, delivering meals on wheels, little league…  This is our greatest responsibility as a young and growing community, to insure those environments for every person who walks in the door.  (And not to forget about those people who do not walk into the door!)

Why then is there a difference between Moshe and Bilaam?  God's relationship to the Jewish People is different from God's relationship to the nations of the world.  The love that God feels for us is not better or more or higher, but it is different.  Undifferentiated love, is not real love.  So God calls Moshe with love to make space for one type of relationship and God calls Bilaam in a unique way to build a different relationship.


Vayikra – structure

March 29, 2006

One of the best ways to study sefer Vayikra is through its structure.  R. Menachem Liebtag has one of the best commentaries on all of chumash out on the web  His entry on parashat Vayikra is but one model of how he writes.  Here is the basic outline with which to understand this week's parashah – see for Reb Menachem on this week. 

There are many question that this outline raises –

  • Why put the individual first?
  • Why put voluntary before obligatory?
  • What questions do you have about this parashah or book?

Parashat Vayikra – The Korban Yachid (individual) 

I. Korban Ndava – Voluntary (chapters 1 – 3)         

A. Olah – animal (completely consumed on the altar)                   

1. Bakar – cattle (1: 1 – 9)                  

2. Tzon – sheep (1: 10 – 13)                  

3. Of – fowl (1: 14 – 17)         

B. Mincha – grain (completely consumed)                  

1. Solet – plain flour mixed with oil and levonah (2: 1 – 3)                  

2. Ma’feh Tanur – baked in the oven (2:4)                                  

3. Al machavat – on a griddle (2:5 – 6)                  

4. Marcheshet – on a pan (2: 7 – 13)                  

5. Bikurim– from the first narvest (2:14 – 16)         

C. Shlamim – animal (eaten partly by owner)                  

1. Bakar – cattle (3: 1- 5)                  

2. Tzon – sheep (3: 6 – 11)                  

 3. Ayz – goats (3: 12 – 17)

II. Korban Chova – Obligatory (chapters 4 – 5)         

A. Chatat                   

1. General Transgression – organized by violator                            

a. High Priest (4: 1 – 12)                            

b. Court (4: 13 – 21)                            

c. Prince (4: 22 – 26)                            

d. Layman (4: 27 – 35)                  

2. Specific Transgression Oleh vyored                            

a. Rich person – female goat or lamb (5: 1 – 6)                            

b. A Poor person – two birds (5: 7 – 10)                            

c. Very poor – plain flour (5: 11 – 13)         

B. Asham – always an ayil (ram)                  

1. Asham Meilot – taking from Temple property (5: 14 – 16)                  

2. Asham Talui – unsure if sinned (5: 17 – 19)                  

3. Asham Gzeilot – stealing from another (5: 20 – 26)

Barukh Shem Kvod Malkhuto

March 26, 2006

When we recite the Shema in our davening, we do something very strange.  We interrupt Deuteronomy chapter 6 with a phrase that does not appear anywhere in the Tanakh.  (Closest thing is Psalm 72:19).  There are two different midrashim that help us to understand this puzzling practice.

I. Bavli, Pesachim 56a:  First our gemara cites a Tosefta (Pesachim 3:19 in Lieberman edition, see Dr. Shamma Friendman's Tosefta Atikta Siman 18) –

Our Rabbis have taught, "How did they (the people of Jericho) used to korchin(fold over) the Shema?  They would say Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord in oneand they would not pause, these are the words of R. Meir.  R. Yehuda says, they would pause but they would not say Barukh shem… (Blessed is the name of his glorious kingdom for all eternity."

Whatever the people of Jericho were in fact doing it was something that rabbis were not happy with.  Presumably both R. Meir and R. Yehuda take for granted the recitation of Barukh Shem…  The gemara then asks –

And we, why do we recite it (barukh shem)?  As R. Shimon b. Lakish taught, "And Yaakov called to his children and said gather and I will tell you (what will be with you at the end of days – the gemara does not quote the entire verse, Genesis 49:1) – Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of days to his sons and the divine presence left him.  He said [to himself], 'Perhaps, heaven forfend, there is amongst my progeny one who is invalid – like Abraham from whom came forth Ishmael and like Issak from whom came forth Essav.'  His sons said to him, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord id our God, the Lord is one!'  They said, 'Just as there is none other in your, there is no other in our heart.'  At that moment Yaakov opened his mouth and said, 'Barukh Shem…'"

The Rabbis said, "How shall we act?  Shall we say it (barukh shem)?  Moshe did not say it!  Shall we skip it?  Yaakov did say it!  The instituted that it should be recited quietly…"

R. Avahu said, "They instituted that it should be said out loud because of the heretics."  But in Nehardea, where there were no heretics, they still say it quietly.  (See also Devarim Rabbah, ed. Vilna 3:35, ed. Lieberman pgs. 67-68)

This is the source that I was raised on. 

1. How did Yaakov's sons call him by his first name?  (We are not going to address this issue.)

2.  How does this source account for our custom on Yom Kippur to say barukh shem out loud?  For that we need another midrash.

II. Midrash Dvarim Rabbah (ed. Vilna 3:36, ed. Lieberman s.v chavivah kriyat shema, pg. 68).  I am going to quote (excerpt) from the Lieberman edition:

The reading of Shema is so beloved that it was given to the Jewish People who give praise first, and then the angels.  The Jewish People say The Lord is our God, the Lord is one and then the angels say barukh shem…And why do the Jewish people say it quietly?…So said Moshe to the Jewish people, 'All of the mitzvot that I give you I received from the Torah.  But this recitation I heard in from the angels and I stole it from them.  Therefore, you should say it quietly…And why do they say it out loud on Yom Kippur?  Because they are like angels.

This Midrash is sited by the Tur in Orach Chayyim 691 as the explicit source for our custom.  See also Magen Avraham691:8 for an anlysis of this issue.  (Chochmat Shlomo on Orach Chayyim 61 also deals with this problem.

It is always a challenge to find the rabbinic source upon which our contemporary practice is based.  This treasure hunt is just one of the aspects that I love in the world of Talmud Torah.

The Four Parshiyot

March 23, 2006

From the Shabbat before the Hebrew month of Adar (that is close to Nissan) until the Shabbat before Nissan there are four special parshiyot read in shul.  First we read Parashat Shekalim, excerpted from the beginning of parashat Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 – 16).  On the Shabbat before Purim we read Parashat Zakhor, the last few sentances of parashat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 25:17 – 19).  The third special Shabbat is called Parashat Parah, taken from the beginning of parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1 – 22).  The fourth and final of the special parashiyot is known as Parashat ha-Chodes when we read from the middle of parashat Bo (Exodus 12:1 – 20).

Each one of these special kriyot is typically studied in a vacuum.  Instead of analyzing the significance of any one of these sections I would to view them as a unit.  Perhaps one can understand these four prashiyot as an attempt to build a Jewish society.

The first step that must be taken is to insure financial stability – Shekalim.  We raise money for the ongoing expenses of the Temple.  These monies were directed toward constant and communal offerings.  In our language, this is te bread and butter of every society – roads, power lines, post offices, infrastructure. 

The next step is to direct out military – Zakhor.  We have to make sure that we are safe from all external threats.  International policiy follows on the heals of a domestic budget.  (It seems that fiscal responsability is prior to the military budget – perhaps a lesson for President Bush!)

Once we are secure, both financially and militarily, we must now focus on our spiritual well being.  Within the Torah’s system, the Temple could not function when people were in contact with dead bodies.  We needed a way to purify ourselves from this most powerful and constant impurity – Parah.

Now that we have made it this far, we bring the sacrifice par-excellance, the Korban Pesach – ha-Chodesh.  This sacrifice, more than any other, is part our the national self definition as outlined in the Torah.  It involves the Temple as well as the home.  Every Jew must be connected in some way to the consumption of the meat.  The ability to celebrate Pesach difines the Jewish People.

There are many things that one can note from the progression.  First, not only does the Torah not denigrate physicality it even place it first on the list.  Without money to run the building, the Temple can not function.  Second, the centrality of the Paschal Lamb can not be over-emphasized.  Third, when these four sections are taken as a unit we can see that the Torah has a plan for our entire society.  Let us all hope and pray that we are able to put that plan into action in our own lifetime!  


Ki Tissa – Holiness – Place and Time

March 17, 2006

The following beautiful chiasmus (shout out to my daf yomi!) opens up a fresh way to think about Holiness in the Book of Exodus.

A. 25:1 – 31:11 Mishkan – building material and priestly garments

B. 31:12 – 31:17 Shabbat

C. 31:18 – 34:35 Sin of the Golden Calf & Repentance

B’. 35:1 – 35:3 Shabbat –

A’. 35:4 – 40:33 Mishkan – implimentation of commandment

The fulcrum of the second half of the Book of Exodus is, quite apparently, the sin of the Golden Calf.  This error seems to be have been based on a misunderstanding of holiness in this world.  The Holiness that inheres in Shabbat and the Mishkan seems to have lead to a false assumption about the human ability to manufacture opportunies for connection.

Maybe they thought they were building a Mishkan that would be more easily portable.  This was simply a different use of gold to build a place that could be the focus of worship.  Perhaps not so different from the Mishkan.  Where did they go wrong?

When they built this Golden Calf they created a Holiness of Place, or thing, but left out the Holiness of Time – Shabbat!  Without Shabbat the structures, institutions, businesses… that we build can become idolatrous.  Shabbat reminds us that ultimately we are all focused on building an ‘oasis in time’.  

It is my sincere hope and prayer that we are all able to focus on the holiness that is brought into our lives around the Shabbat table. 

Purim – then and now – by Michael J. Granoff

March 14, 2006

It is impossible to sit here on Purim day and not reflect on the urgent irony that now, as in the time of Megilat Esther, an evil man sits in the capital of Persia threatening to annihilate the Jewish people.

The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said in recent months that “The annihilation of the Zionist regime will come… Israel must be wiped off the map.”  And he has backed those words up with continued development of a nuclear weapon.

In the Purim story it took the intervention of the First Lady of Persia to save the Jewish people.  In our day, make no mistake, it will take our own intervention to prevent a catastrophe.  As AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr recently observed, “All of us have asked ourselves the question: Why wasn’t more done to stop the Axis powers [in the 1930s]?  Why weren’t the warnings heeded?…   We pledge that we will not be part of a generation that will wish it could call back yesterday.”

AIPAC activist Yossi Siegel put the connection between the Purim story and the contemporary threat this way:

When Queen Esther is asked by her uncle Mordechai to approach the king in order to save her people, she is fearful and tries to find a way not to do it.  Not only is it prohibited for anyone to approach the king without an invitation, but also Esther will have to reveal her Jewish heritage, and will have to ask him to reverse a royal decree.  She hesitates. And then Mordechai challenges Esther with words that change history.  “Who knows,” he says to her, “whether it was just for such a moment that you attained this royal position.”  Esther is emboldened and acts; she – like Mordechai – goes from being a mere person to a person who shifts history.  And, the Jewish people – on the verge of total annihilation – are saved.  A key lesson of Purim is that each and every one of us needs to be like Mordechai.  When alerted to danger, we can’t ever just close our eyes and hope for the best.  Every one of us has the power to change even a royal decree.  But, if each of us needs to be like Mordechai, we also all need to be like Esther, to overcome our shyness, our fear, even our love of comfort and to call out to those in power who can be our partners in saving us – and them, too – from an awful result.  When we reach out to others in our own communities and urge them to join this essential work, we are like Mordechai.  And when we raise our voices to our elected officials and educate them to see how our fight is their fight, then we are all like Esther.

Megillat Esther – Chapter Nine – Three Phases of the Holiday

March 13, 2006

Phase One à 9:17 on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.9:18 But the Jews that were in Shushan assembled together on the thirteenth day thereof, and on the fourteenth thereof; and on the fifteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.

The year of the war there were spontaneous celebrations – feasting (mishteh) & gladness (simcha).  A great emphasis is placed on drinking through out this book.

Phase Two à 9:19 Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the un-walled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another.

"Therefore – Al kein" implies that this was in a subsequent year.  The people prioritized the gladness over the feasting and added two social components – "A Good Day – Yom Tov" & "Gifts to one another – Mishloach Manot."  It seems that the people wanted to have this day be a yontif on which work would be prohibited.  In addition to adding the issur melakhah (prohibition on labor) they also added gifts to one another.

Phase Three à 9:20 And Mordechai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, 9:21 to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, 9:22 the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.

What did Mordechai add or change?

What is the signifigance of sending out letters?

(Thank you to Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot for presenting this basic structure over Shabbat in shul.  Thank you to Ramban in the beginning of Masechet Megillah for fleshing this Out.  Thank you to Rabbi Meir Schweigger and the Pardes Pod Cast for presenting this in a similar fashion.)