Category Archives: 5780

Sanctity versus Power (Vayikra)

Sanctity versus Power (Vayikra)

We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom. -Stephen Vincent Benet

The beginning of the Book of Leviticus details a variety of sacrifices that are brought by different people for different sins. Two individuals are singled out in the list of sinners and they are prescribed different sacrifices. One personality is the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest); the other is the King.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 4:21 analyses the differences between these two personalities. The Kohen Gadol is the most sacred role in Israel. He and only he is the one with the task, the burden and the great honor of entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. He represents the holiest person, in the holiest place at the holiest time in a unique annual communion with God, that when successful, conveys forgiveness to the entire people of Israel.

In Biblical times, the Kohen Gadol also wore the Urim Ve’tumim, the special breastplate with the twelve precious stones that enabled a very specific but powerful communication between God and the leadership of Israel. The bottom line is that the Kohen Gadol represented the pinnacle of sanctity and closeness to God. Because of this closeness, any sin that the Kohen Gadol committed, even if it was inadvertent, would be considered by the public as purposeful.

The King, on the other hand, was considered all too human. Because of his excess power, it was presumed that he would err more than your average citizen. That is why he was given additional strictures above those of non-Kings, such as the prohibition of accumulating too much wealth, too many horses or too many wives, and his need to carry a Torah scroll on him at all times.

The people, knowing well the King’s likelihood to blunder and to show poor judgment, would know that any sins of his are indeed mistakes and they would be more careful not to imitate such mistakes.

The Meshech Chochma adds that this is the reason why we don’t appoint Kohens as Kings (a reminder of the ultimately catastrophic Hasmonean monarchy – the combination of Kohens and kingship ended in disaster). The Kohen who is meant to be more attuned to divine service will turn away from God because of the royal power he gets. His arrogance will remove his fear of God. And if this Kohen King sins, the people may follow his example, considering him a holy man.

On the other hand, the Meshech Chochma continues, the people likewise can affect their king. When the people sin, the king can very likely be influenced by them and follow in their ways. The converse is likewise true: if the people are good and follow God, the king will be strengthened and encouraged to do the same.

May we never confuse holiness with power.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those working on a COVID-19 vaccine and cure.

Inherited Sensitivity (Vayakel-Pekudai)

Inherited Sensitivity (Vayakel-Pekudai)

You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes. -Walter Schirra Sr.

Before Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, he tells the people of Israel that he’s leaving Aaron and Hur in charge. However, we never hear about Hur ever again. The Midrash says that Hur rejected the people’s request to construct the Golden Calf, and in their rage, they killed him. Aaron, understanding that he would be the next victim, and in an effort to prevent more bloodshed (his own), gave in to the request and made them the infamous Golden Calf.

When things eventually calm down, God chooses Hur’s grandson, Betzalel, as the main architect and designer of the Tabernacle, with the exclusive task of personally making the holiest piece, the Ark of the Covenant.

What is highly unusual about the Ark, and which likely raised eyebrows initially as it does in a sense to this day, is that God ordered that the Ark cover would have not only one but two figures, two little idols of cherubs facing each other.

How could it be that the same God who shows such abhorrence to graven images, who was ready to wipe out the entire nation of Israel because of their worship of the Golden Calf, could command the construction of figures to be placed on the holiest object, an object which symbolizes his most concentrated presence on earth?

There are multiple answers the rabbinic commentators provide to the question and I’ve given some of their answers in previous years (see Vayakel archive). However, according to the Meshech Chochma on Exodus 37:1, whatever the rationale, that Ark and those cherubs needed to be fashioned with the utmost purity of purpose, without any hint whatsoever of idolatrous intention.

That, according to him, is one of the reasons why Betzalel was such a perfect choice for the job. His grandfather, Hur, had fought, resisted and gave his life in the struggle against idolatry. By his upbringing and nature, Betzalel would have an abhorrence to idolatry. He would bring a complete purity of purpose in the creation of the Ark and its accompanying images, without a sliver of thought, without a notion of idolatry.

Hur’s heroic sacrifice helped form his grandson’s character. That grandson becomes a partner with God in the creation of the holiest items on earth.

May we see them returned, to the rebuilt Temple, speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those on the front line of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding a Son’s Sin (Ki Tisa)

Understanding a Son’s Sin (Ki Tisa)

Every man is an omnibus in which his ancestors ride. -Oliver Wendell Holmes

This week’s Torah reading contains the famous episode of the Golden Calf. Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. After forty days and nights, the people of Israel became anxious, and feeling leaderless, demanded of Aaron, Moses’ brother, that he make an idol for them. Aaron grudgingly does so.

The next morning the people of Israel worship the Golden Calf. They do this at the foot of Mount Sinai, forty days after having heard the voice of God, three months after having been miraculously liberated from Egypt. God is understandably furious (whatever that means theologically). God is ready to destroy the nation of Israel. He informs Moses of his plan to wipe out all of Israel and start over again with Moses as the Patriarch of a new nation that would ostensibly remain loyal and steadfast in their devotion to God.

This is where Moses steps in. He prays to God. His prayer is so strong, so sharp, so convincing, that he somehow gets God to stay His wrath. (Parts of his prayer are used in our liturgies to this day).

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 32:8 digs a little deeper and wonders as to what gave Moses the insight, the clarity and the wisdom to articulate such an effective prayer and thereby save the entire nation of Israel.

He answers based on the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 32a) which says that Moses prayed until he felt “fire in his bones.” The Meshech Chochma details that the reference to “fire in his bones” is that Moses prayed to God for forgiveness for Israel about the Golden Calf until he felt in his bones that he also had the same fault. Only when Moses reached that point of understanding and identification with the sin of Israel, was he able to achieve forgiveness for Israel.

What aspect of the sin was in Moses’ “bones?” The Talmud (Tractate Niddah 31a) states that a characteristic that a father bequeaths to his son is his bones. The Midrash based on the Book of Judges tells us that Moses’ grandson Yehonatan was guilty of worshipping idols. That gave Moses the opening to say to God: “God, you want to make a new nation from me? In my family, I will also have this fault of idol worship.”

So Moses’ understanding and identification with his future grandson’s idolatry somehow saved the nation of Israel from being punished for that same crime.

May we identify with our progeny, and they with us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those in quarantine.

Valuable Parental Respect (Tetzave)

Valuable Parental Respect (Tetzave)

A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone. -Billy Graham

The Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 31a) tells the unusual case where one of the twelve precious stones of the High Priest’s breastplate fell out and was lost. The sages needed to find a replacement for this rare and valuable stone. They found such a stone by a non-Jew in Ashkelon by the name of Dama son of Netina. The sages approached Dama with a great sense of urgency:

“I’d love to sell you the stone,” Dama says, “but the key to my safe is under my father’s pillow. He’s currently sleeping and I won’t wake him up, even for the generous sum that you’re offering.”

The sages leave and presumably find another stone elsewhere. Dama’s great care and respect for his father lost him a tremendous business deal.

God, however, did not forget Dama’s respect for his father. The following year, when the sages found themselves in need of a Red Heifer (a rare and valuable animal required for a vital purification ritual in Temple times), it turned out that Dama was the only one that had one in his herd. The sages found themselves at Dama’s door once again, and Dama knew that he could command an exorbitant price for the Red Heifer due to the circumstance of him having the only one at the time. However, Dama contented himself with charging the amount that he would have gotten for the precious stone he didn’t sell the year before. Thus, God made sure Dama didn’t lose in the end because of his great respect for his father and indeed, Dama’s name has since stood for centuries as a paragon of parental respect.

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 28:9, where we have the listing of the different precious stones of the High Priest’s breastplate, points out a biblical link to Dama’s story. The stone that went missing in Dama’s story was the Yashphe, the stone that represented the Tribe of Benjamin. Of all of Jacob’s sons, Benjamin was the only one who hadn’t caused his father grief and showed the utmost respect to Jacob (ten of the brothers participated in the sale of Joseph to Egypt – perhaps the biggest anguish in Jacob’s life; and according to the Midrash, in a fashion, Joseph himself was a party to the conspiracy, by remaining quiet about it afterward).

It was therefore appropriate, that the son who demonstrated the greatest respect to his father would merit that God’s concentrated presence, via the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, would reside in his tribal allotment. We find that throughout the centuries of movements of the Tabernacle, it always remained within the tribal portion of Benjamin and the final address of the Ark, in the permanent structure of the Temple, also fell in the portion of Benjamin.

May we always demonstrate proper respect for our parents.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To an Israeli government?

God wants us, He doesn’t need us (Truma)

God wants us, He doesn’t need us (Truma)

Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need. -Gaston Bachelard

 

After the historic divine revelation at Mount Sinai, God commands Moses to build a Sanctuary, the Tabernacle. The Torah provides extreme detail as to the composition, construction, and measurements of the inner components of the Tabernacle as well as to its structural elements.

The central and most famous component of the Tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant, where the two tablets containing the newly received Ten Commandments were stored. (It is not, contrary to popular belief, being held in a US government warehouse, after being rescued from the Nazis by Indiana Jones…).

A curious design feature of the Ark is that it has two poles for carrying it. Well, that’s not the curious part. The curious part is that there is an explicit command that those two poles may never be removed from the Ark, even when there is no longer a need for them and nobody is carrying the Ark.

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 25:11-18 learns a deep lesson as to the necessity of permanently leaving the carrying poles in an Ark that is not being carried.

He explains that we misunderstand the role of the poles and by extension, God’s role and relationship to us.

The poles are not there to carry the Ark. The Ark, in some metaphysical fashion which we don’t understand but that the Talmud verifies (Tractate Sotah 35a), carries itself. In fact, not only does the Ark carry itself, but it actually carries the people who think they’re carrying the Ark.

To support his argument further, the Meshech Chochma brings the example of the second most famous component of the Tabernacle, the Candelabrum, the Menorah. According to Maimonides, the Menorah was lit not only at night but also during the day. Why light the scarce and precious olive oil during the day when there is no need for illumination? The Meshech Chochma explains that it comes to make the same point. God doesn’t need the light; not at night and not during the day. By lighting the Menorah during the day, the obvious lack of a practical physical purpose demonstrates that God doesn’t need it. The same point is made by the poles. The Ark doesn’t need the poles, and by having them permanently attached, even when at rest, it further demonstrates that at a deeper, fundamental level, they are not really needed.

Ultimately, these physical examples inform our own relationship with and service to God. God doesn’t need it. God manages and will manage just fine without us. However, He wants us. He does want a relationship with us. He does want us to reach out to Him. He does want us to connect. Not because He needs us, but rather, because He wants us.

May we always be wanted by God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Israeli voters (again).

Adulterer, Murderer, Kohen (Mishpatim)

Adulterer, Murderer, Kohen (Mishpatim)

The study of crime begins with the knowledge of oneself. All that you despise, all that you loathe, all that you reject, all that you condemn and seek to convert by punishment springs from you. -Henry Miller

In the midst of a recital of numerous civil laws and capital offenses, the Torah adds an unusual phrase:

When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death. -Exodus 21:14

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to the seemingly superfluous line of “treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar.” Anyone who kills someone else merits the death penalty. Why the extra verbiage in a text that we know conserves every word possible?

The Meshech Chochma connects the intent of the murderer of the above verse with two other personalities that were presumed to have murder on their minds: Pharaoh from the time of Abraham, and Avimelech, King of Grar. Abraham suspected and feared that both of these monarchs would have killed him to get his beautiful wife Sarah when he visited their domains. We are told their stories in the Book of Genesis, of how Abraham and Sarah pretended to be brother and sister, which led each of the monarchs to take Sarah for themselves until God miraculously intervenes in each case and forces the potentially murderous monarch to return Sarah to Abraham. It seems that had Abraham and Sarah revealed that they were married, it would have been likely that Abraham would have been killed in order to make Sarah “available” for the monarchs.

The Meshech Chochma however, connects our verse with another creature that was named “treacherous,” namely, the snake in the Garden of Eden. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sotah 9b) presents the Midrash which states that the conniving snake desired Eve and plotted to kill Adam to get her, (hence getting them to eat from the forbidden fruit, which would trigger Adam’s death).

The Meshech Chochma goes further and states that the likely culprit of such adulterous thoughts and murderous activity would be none other than a Kohen! That would explain the need to take him away from the altar – the Kohens are the ones who are serving God at the altar. However, there are additional reasons to make the Kohen a particularly apt suspect:

  1. Kohens are prohibited from marrying a divorcee. Therefore, the only way they could permissibly marry a married woman whom they desired would be to kill the husband. All non-Kohens could wait for a non-lethal divorce.
  2. Kohens, as Temple servants, would come into frequent contact with women who brought their various sacrifices to the Temple. The frequent contact could lead them to murderous thoughts to separate these women from their living husbands.

May we be spared from treacherous thoughts and treacherous people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of the Kohens in my life. They are wonderful, upstanding and inspirational people.

Fighting Sorcery (Yitro)

Fighting Sorcery (Yitro)

Ohhh! You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting! – Wicked Witch of the West

 

In this week’s Torah reading, we are presented with the famous Ten Commandments. The fourth one reads as follows:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why there would be extra, special attention drawn to the sea. Why would it say, “heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them?” Why specifically is the phrase “all that is in them,” added to the sea, and not to heaven or earth?

He answers that there appears to have been an ancient belief that the subject of idol worship had power on the earth, but not on the sea and that those idolaters were willing to admit that God had exclusive domain over the seas. These idolaters admitted that their “gods” had no dominion over the sea or even over water. These beliefs translated into a practical effect: that the mystical sorcerous powers that these idolaters possessed through the worship of their “deities” could be nullified by water.

The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 67b) has an entire discussion about the use of sorcery and demons and concludes that it was normal practice in ancient Egypt to test any possible sorcerous spells with water. There is a story of the sage Zeiri who was sold a donkey in Alexandria. Suspecting foul play, he watered the donkey and it was revealed to be just a wooden plank. (He got a refund for his purchase).

In another case, Yannai arrived at an inn and asked for water. He was given water mixed with flour and noticed the woman innkeeper’s lips moving. Suspicious, Yannai spilled some of the water on the ground and it turned promptly into scorpions. Having evidence that they meant him harm, he cast his own spell and had the woman drink from the cup. She turned into a donkey which he proceeded to ride into the marketplace until a friend of hers released her from the sorcery.

I don’t know if L. Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz) was familiar with these Talmudic stories or the Jewish understanding that water could nullify magic, but it’s certainly a fascinating possibility!

The Meshech Chochma concludes that the purpose of emphasizing God as the creator of the sea and all that’s in it, is to underline the fact, that just as God has absolute dominion over the oceans and all that is in it, so too, He has complete dominion over the heavens and the earth as well.

May we stay clear of any dark arts and enjoy the natural magic of creation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the impressive OurCrowd Summit in Jerusalem.