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Bechukosai- A Casual Curse

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’ Click here to buy the book

Questions

By using the term keri so prominently at both ends of the Tochacha’s equation, in both the description of the nation’s possible transgression and in the description of God’s possible response, the Torah apparently emphasizes a critical idea, central to the very nature of sin and punishment. If we could only understand this concept, the text seems to say, we could finally recognize where we go wrong. We could strike to the core of our failures and their consequences, finding a way to break the recurring, tragic cycle that plagues our relationship with the Divine.

And yet, the text remains frustratingly unclear.

Why, at this point, does the Torah suddenly introduce, for the first and only time, the word keri?

Once introduced, why is this term repeated so often in such a short span of text?

Above all, within the context of the Tochacha, in the realm of both sin and punishment, what does the word keri actually mean?

Approaches

A

Confronted with this puzzling term and its use in the Tochacha, numerous commentaries propose a wide variety of interpretations.

Both Rashi and his grandson, the Rashbam, for example, introduce a basic translation upon which most commentaries build. These scholars translate the word keri to mean “casual” or “inconsistent” (derived, as stated above, from the root kara, to happen). If the nation sins by worshiping God in an erratic, inconsistent manner, Rashi and the Rashbam explain, God will respond in kind and will relate to the nation haphazardly and unpredictably, as well. (Rashi, Vayikra 26:21)

A number of other commentaries, including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ohr Hachaim, choose a related but different path. The term keri, these scholars maintain, describes a flawed world outlook that can lead to immeasurable sin. An individual who sees the world in a fashion of keri perceives no pattern to the events unfolding around him. In place of Divine Providence, this individual observes only random coincidence; and in place of punishment for sin, accidental misfortune. For such an individual, tshuva (return to the proper path) becomes increasingly unattainable. In a haphazard world governed by arbitrary forces, after all, there exists little incentive for change. (Rabbeinu Bachya, ibid.; Ohr Hachaim, ibid.)

Going a step further, the Ohr Hachaim perceives in God’s reaction – “And then I [God], too, will walk with you with keri…” (Vayikra 26:24.) – a carefully calibrated “measure for measure” response to the nation’s failing. If the people refuse to see a divinely ordained pattern in the world around them, God will withdraw, making it even more difficult for them to perceive His presence.

The punishments to follow will seem even more random, bearing no obvious connection to the nation’s sins. The people’s failure to recognize God’s imminence will thus prove frighteningly prophetic, for God will respond with “distance.” (Ohr Hachaim, ibid.)

For his part, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch interprets the sin associated with the word keri as “indifference” to God’s will. Those guilty of this transgression find considerations other than God’s will central to their lives and their sporadic obedience to Torah law is thus purely coincidental. God responds to this sin in kind, says Hirsch, by removing His Divine protection from the nation and allowing the natural course of world history to determine their fate. The welfare of the Jewish people will be advanced only coincidentally, when that welfare happens to correspond to the interests and needs of the powerful nations around them. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Vayikra 26:21, 23–24)

Finally a group of other scholars, Onkelos chiefly among them, diverge from the above explanations entirely and explain the term keri to mean “stubbornness” or “harshness.” If the nation stubbornly refuses to obey based upon God’s law, God’s response will be harsh and unforgiving. (Targum Onkelos, Vayikra 26: 21, 23)

B

A clearer understanding of the puzzling term keri and its repeated use in the Tochacha can be gained if we consider the basic approach of Rashi and the Rashbam (who interpret the term to mean a casual approach to God’s will) in light of the “rules” that govern our own life experiences. )

Many years ago, I asked the participants in one of my synagogue classes to name the one most important component in any successful interpersonal relationship. Expecting a plethora of suggestions, I was surprised when they unanimously responded with the one word which I had earlier defined for myself as my own answer: trust.

Our associations with each other, from partnerships to friendships to marriages, can endure many blows and setbacks. One wound, however, invariably proves fatal: the total loss of trust. When mutual trust is gone and cannot be regained; when the relationship no longer feels safe and secure; when each participant no longer believes that the other consistently has his partner’s best interests at heart, the relationship is doomed.

God thus turns to the Israelites and proclaims: “And if you will walk with me keri…”
If I find that you are deliberately inconsistent in your commitment to Me; if I find that you are only at My door when you choose to be; if I find that I cannot trust you to seek My presence and relate to Me continually; then I will respond in kind…

“And then I [God], too, will walk with you with keri

You will no longer be able to count on My continuing presence in your lives. I will distance Myself and not be there when you expect Me to be. Our relationship will become casual and inconsistent; all trust will be lost…

God will forgive many failings and sins, but when we lose His trust, the punishments of the Tochacha are the result.

Points to Ponder

The text’s prominent use of the puzzling word keri in the Tochacha brings our study of Vayikra full circle…

This complex central book of the Torah, with its disparate laws ranging from minute, mysterious rituals to towering ethical edicts, makes one real demand upon the reader.

We are challenged to earn God’s trust.

Judaism is not a smorgasbord. The Torah emphasizes that we cannot pick and choose the elements of observance that suit our fancy. Each law, from a seemingly minor sacrificial detail to a powerful edict such as “Love your fellow as yourself,” has its place and its purpose. Each halachic element is an essential component in the tapestry of trust meant to be woven between God and his people.

In structure and content, the book of Vayikra reminds us that when we earn God’s trust through faithful adherence to His multifaceted law, we will be able to trust in God’s continued presence within our lives.

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Emor- Mysterious Majesty

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Mysterious Majesty

Context

As Parshat Emor continues with its description of the festival cycle, we encounter a holiday shrouded in mystery.

A series of enigmas surround both the festival of Shavuot, introduced for the first time in this parsha, and Revelation, the historical event with which Shavuot is associated.

  1. Although the rabbis identify Shavuot as Zman Matan Torateinu, the anniversary of the giving of our Torah, no actual connection between the holiday and Revelation is made in the text. Shavuot, in fact, emerges as the only one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Succot) for which no historical foundation is recorded in the Torah.
  2. At no point does the Torah mention an independent calendar date for the festival of Shavuot. Most often, this holiday is identified as the endpoint of the Omer count (see previous study). The festival’s very title, Shavuot (literally “Weeks”) derives from the celebration’s position as the culmination of the seven-week Omer period.On one occasion, in a series of passages clearly identifying the holidays by their calendar dates, Shavuot is again the glaring exception, with even the festival’s relationship to the Omer period omitted. In that case, Shavuot is mentioned without any calendar reference at all.
  3. The Torah also fails to pinpoint the specific date of the onset of Revelation at Sinai. The text, in fact, seems to deliberately go out of its way to avoid any clear dating of this event. The arrival of the Israelites at the site of Revelation is, for example, described in the Torah as follows: “In the third month from the Exodus of the children of Israel from the Land of Egypt, on this day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”Failing to identify “this day,” the Torah leaves it to the rabbis to compute the chronology and explain that the Israelites arrive at Sinai on the first day of the third month, Sivan.To make matters even more confusing, uncertainty emerges concerning the timetable of events immediately prior to Revelation. Based on ambiguity in the text, the rabbis debate whether or not Moshe, divinely commanded to set aside three days preparatory to Revelation, “adds an additional preparatory day of his own.” This disagreement over Moshe’s actions, in turn, leads to an even more significant divergence of opinion concerning the exact date of Revelation.The majority of the rabbis, maintaining that Moshe followed God’s instructions to the letter, correlate the onset of Revelation to the sixth day of Sivan, the date of the Shavuot festival. Rabbi Yossi, however, the author of the position that Moshe added an additional preparatory day, insists that Revelation does not begin until the seventh day of Sivan – the day after Shavuot.According to Rabbi Yossi’s calculations, we are thus faced with the startling conclusion that Revelation does not occur on the date of the festival identified by the rabbis as the anniversary of the event. (In the diaspora, Shavuot is observed on the seventh day of Sivan, as well as the sixth. This observance, however, does not relate to the above discussion but is the result of a general rabbinic decree concerning calendar uncertainty: yom tov sheini shel galuyot, the added second day of observance of all the festivals in the diaspora.)
  4. Finally, in contrast to other festivals, no unique observance is associated in the text with the holiday of Shavuot (all-night learning sessions are a minhag, a custom, and not biblically or even rabbinically mandated). This festival is governed only by the generic laws common to all biblical holidays.

Questions

Why does so much mystery surround the festival of Shavuot and the commemoration of Revelation?

Shouldn’t the single most important formative event in Jewish history be clearly dated and uniquely celebrated?

Approaches

A

The Torah’s identification of Shavuot as the culmination of the Omer count, as opposed to a holiday with a separate calendar date of its own, may well reflect and expand upon lessons learned from the Omer period itself (see previous study).

As discussed, many authorities see the mitzva of Sfirat Ha’omer, the counting of the Omer, as an act linking Pesach to Shavuot. In this light, Shavuot is best understood, not as a totally autonomous festival, but as something of a “hybrid” – a continuation of Pesach, yet also a commemoration with its own unique identity and message. Shavuot stands as Pesach’s goal, a reminder that the physical freedom achieved with the Exodus is incomplete without the spiritual freedom granted at Sinai.

B

Unexpected precedent for this approach is found in the form of another two-tiered biblical festival, distant on the calendar from but in many ways similar to the festival of Shavuot.

Immediately after the holiday of Succot, the Torah mandates a one-day festival known as Shmini Atzeret. While this celebration is clearly connected to Succot, the rabbis are nonetheless emphatic in their contention that Shmini Atzeret is a “festival unto itself,” with its own identity and message. We are thus again confronted with a “hybrid holiday,” a celebration which, like Shavuot, is at once a continuation of what comes before (even the title Shmini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly, references the connection to the seven days of Succot) and at the same time a separate occasion.

Furthermore, while Shmini Atzeret and Shavuot stand at opposite ends of the calendar, rabbinic thought connects them closely. Shavuot is referred to within Talmudic literature simply as Atzeret, the Day of Assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi even maintains that Shmini Atzeret should rightfully be as distant from Succot as Shavuot is from Pesach. Mercifully, however, God places Shmini Atzeret immediately following Succot so that the people will not have to make an additional pilgrimage back to Jerusalem during the winter season.

The implied equation is clear: Shavuot is to Pesach as Shmini Atzeret is to Succot.

The parallel between these two festivals, however, runs even deeper. Like Shavuot, Shmini Atzeret has no unique mitzva of its own. The silence of this festival, coming on the heels of the ritually richest time in the Jewish year (the month of Tishrei, containing Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot), is, in fact, deafening. And yet, according to rabbinic tradition, Shmini Atzeret is the culmination of all that comes before: a day marking the intimate, personal relationship between God and his people.

Neither Shavuot nor Shmini Atzeret need be marked by a mitzva specific to the day because each of these festivals celebrates, in its own way and at the close of a holiday period, the complete relationship between God and His people.

Shmini Atzeret caps the personal passage through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot, culminating each year’s tshuva cycle with a celebration of our renewed bond with our Creator. Shavuot concludes the national passage from bondage to freedom, marking the day on which God’s relationship with His chosen people begins in earnest.

C

Another distinct message is conveyed through the Torah’s identification of Shavuot as the culmination of the Omer period: the value of a goal reached is directly dependent upon the quality of the journey that takes you there.

Every life milestone derives its significance, in large measure, from what comes before: the days of study leading to the bar/bat mitzvah; the personal maturation that sets the stage for courtship and marriage; the years of shared love that give rise to an anniversary…

Life’s special occasions would be much emptier without the struggle, growth and rich experience leading to them.

Each year, therefore, we do not return to Sinai without first passing through the Omer. To arrive at the anniversary of Matan Torah without a prior journey would have little meaning. Each year, forty-nine days of preparation, replicating the original forty-nine days of anticipation that led from the Exodus to Revelation precede our arrival. By defining the festival of Shavuot specifically in relationship to those preceding days, the Torah informs us that the most significant moment of Jewish history, like all milestones, draws its significance from the prior journey.

D

While the approaches outlined above address some of the mysteries surrounding the festival of Shavuot, the Torah’s obfuscation concerning the date of Revelation itself remains a puzzle. Why does the text deliberately avoid pinpointing the most significant moment of Jewish history, to the extent that its date remains the subject of dispute to this day? Why, as well, does the Torah fail to associate this event with its apparent anniversary, the festival of Shavuot?

A fascinating, far-reaching answer is hinted at in a well-known Midrashic observation and elaborated upon by later authorities.

The Midrash focuses on the previously mentioned Torah passage, describing the arrival of the Israelites at the site of Revelation: “In the third month from the Exodus of the children of Israel from the Land of Egypt, on this day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”

This text, maintain the rabbis, is even more puzzling than it first seems to be. Not only is the Torah ambiguous concerning the nation’s arrival at Sinai, but the terminology actually used by the text is inherently problematic. The Torah does not say, as we would expect: “on that day (bayom hahu), they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.” Instead, the text reads: “on this day (bayom hazeh), they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”

Why does the Torah refer to a millennia-old moment as “this day”?

Because, suggest the rabbis, the text means to convey an overarching message: “As you study Torah, [its words] should not be ancient in your eyes, but as if they were given to you ‘this day.’”

Or as Rashi puts it: “At all times the Torah’s words should seem as new to you [variant: as dear to you] as if they were given to you today.”

E

There is, I believe, much more to these rabbinic observations than meets the eye. In essence, the rabbis are emphasizing that Revelation is not a historic event.

The Patriarchal Era, the Exodus, the wandering in the wilderness, the entry into the land of Canaan and so much more, are periods and incidents rooted in the past. They are meant to be learned from, reexamined, re-experienced, even seen as prototypes for the present; but they are all past events.

Revelation is different. Matan Torah is a process that continues to this day and beyond. Every time we study a text, ask a halachic question or share a Torah thought, we stand again at Sinai receiving the Torah. Every time the rabbis apply the law to changing circumstance, suggest new in­sight into an age-old text or enact new legislation to protect the community, we participate in Revelation. When concerns ranging from in vitro fertilization to stem cell research to the definition of death and its impact on organ donation are actively addressed and debated within Jewish law, Matan Torah unfolds.

F

We can now understand the Torah’s reluctance to pinpoint both the date and the holiday marking Revelation. Either of these two acts would root Matan Torah in the past. Like so many other historical events, Revelation would become an event to celebrate and commemorate, rather than a process in which to participate.

The Torah, therefore, leaves it to the rabbis to determine the date on which the Israelites actually stood at Sinai and to draw the inevitable conclusion that the Shavuot festival marks that date. The text itself remains silent concerning these issues in order to remind us that we stand at Sinai today.

 

Points to Ponder

To the uninitiated, the allure of Torah study is often difficult to comprehend. What is this fascination with age-old, seemingly archaic text? What satisfaction can be found in poring over rabbinic observations authored centuries ago?

The following story begins to answer these questions.

Many years ago I made the acquaintance of a young man who came to Talmud study late in his educational development. One day, he turned to me and said: “You know why I love the Talmud? Because when I begin to study Talmud, the boundaries of time disappear. Suddenly I am sitting at a table, present at a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael, dating back to the beginning of the Common Era.

“As the conversation continues, Rav Huna [third century] offers a thought; Abbaye [fourth century] makes a comment, only to be countered by Rava [fourth century], as Rav Ashi [fifth century] joins in.

“Then Rashi [1040–1105] makes an observation and is immediately challenged by his descendents, the Tosafists [twelfth–thirteenth centuries]. Others soon join the discussion, including the Rambam [1135–1204] and Rabbi Yosef Karo [1488–1575], all making their positions known…

“And I, I am there too, at the table, asking my questions and adding my thoughts to a dialogue that will continue long after I am gone, as well.”

To be part of an eternal conversation; to connect both with God’s will and with generations long gone; to stand at Sinai in our day: that, in essence, is the adventure that Torah provides.

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Kedoshim- When Prohibitions Collide

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers 

Two sentences after the Torah’s mandate of Lifnei iveir lo titein michshol (which includes the prohibition of misleading another, even through the passive withholding of vital information; [Talmud Bavli Moed Katan 5a] see previous study), the text delineates an equally powerful, far-reaching directive: Lo telech rachil b’amecha, “Do not travel as a gossipmonger among your people.”

From this commandment and other sources in the Torah the rabbis identify three levels of prohibited interpersonal speech as falling under the general prohibition of rechilut (gossip).

1. Motzi shem ra, slander: The most severe form of prohibited interpersonal speech: the intentional spreading of damaging untruths about another individual.

2. Lashon hara, evil speech: The spreading of damaging information about another individual, even if the information is true.

3. Rechilut, gossip: The sharing of any personal information about another individual outside of that individual’s presence, if there is the slightest chance that the information shared will result in the creation of ill will.

Rabbinic literature is replete with references concerning the tragic effects of unfettered speech (see Tazria-Metzora 3, Approaches D, E). The prevalence of this phenomenon (we are almost all guilty of the transgressions of prohibited speech) combines with the terrible damage that can be wrought upon the lives of others to make the ongoing effect of these sins particularly devastating.

What should our posture be, however, when the prohibition against rechilut conflicts with the prohibition of lifnei iveir; when information is requested of us, the sharing of which might be damaging to one individual while the withholding of which might be damaging to another?

What if, for example, I am requested to give a job reference concerning an acquaintance and the information to which I am privy will be harmful to the candidate? What if I am asked by a friend concerning a budding romantic relationship and, again, the information that I would share would be less than flattering?

The responses of halacha to these commonly occurring dilemmas are complex and vary on a case–by-case basis, as the law struggles to reconcile the conflicting demands of these two significant mitzvot.

Four commonsense rules, however, can be helpful as a guide in all cases.

1. Explore the motivations: What is the impetus behind our intent to share this information? Are we motivated in any way by jealousy or personal animus? Are we fully aware of the underlying forces that drive us to speak?

2. Study the facts: Are we certain of the veracity of information that we intend to share? What is the nature of our sources? Too often, damaging hearsay is repeated as fact, with devastating consequences.

3. Examine the relevance: Is the information we plan to share relevant to the situation at hand? Are we limiting our response to the necessary information or are we adding and embellishing beyond the essential facts?

4. Seek halachic counsel: Many of us tend to request halachic guidance only in areas of ritual concern such as kashrut and Shabbat. Jewish law, however, is meant to serve as a guide in all arenas of life, particularly when it comes to our ethical and moral behavior.

Seeking appropriate halachic counsel before we speak about others is a sensible, often necessary step. Words, once spoken, can never be fully retracted.

On the other hand, the failure to share warranted information can cause irreparable damage to the unsuspecting. The burden of our intended action or inaction should, therefore, weigh heavily upon us. Decisions should not be made in haste, but only after due deliberation. Consultation with the proper halachic advisor can help grant perspective, allowing the wide-ranging experience of Jewish law to inform those decisions.

Great caution must be exercised when the prohibitions of lifnei iveir and rechilut collide. The welfare of others hangs in the balance.

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Parshat Tazria- Metzora: Simcha or Sin

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Context
Parshat Tazria opens with one of the strangest examples of biblical ritual “impurity”: tumat yoledet, tuma resulting from childbirth.

The Torah relates that, following the birth of a male child, a childbearing mother enters a seven-day period of tuma, while following the birth of a female child, a fourteen-day period of tuma is mandated. In each case, these days of tuma are then followed by much lengthier periods (thirty-three days after the birth of a male child and sixty-six days after the birth of a female child) of modified separation from sanctified objects.

Finally, at the close of each extended period, the mother brings a burnt offering and a sin offering to the Temple to mark her full reentry into society

Questions

Bearing a child is clearly one of the most highly sanctified acts possible; the first divine blessing/commandment given to man while still in the Garden of Eden; (Bereishit 1:28) the clearest demonstration of man’s partnership with God. Why, then, does a woman automatically incur a state of tuma as a result of childbirth?

Approaches

The most basic, and in some ways the most problematic, approach to the perplexing issues surrounding the tumat yoledet is offered by a group of scholars including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Kli Yakar. These commentaries view both the tuma resulting from childbirth and the sin offering in its aftermath as a reflection of the primal sin of Chava, the first woman. (Rabbeinu Bachya, Vayikra 12:7; Kli Yakar, Vayikra 12:8) In response to Chava’s role in the consumption of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God condemns her and her female progeny to the travails of childbirth. (Bereishit 3:16)

While giving birth to a child is, therefore, a glorious mitzva, the pain and difficulty associated with the process is the product of sin.

This approach, however, gives rise to serious issues concerning the nature of divine reward and punishment. As we have noted before, Judaism clearly rejects the Christian notion of “original sin” (see Bereishit: Lech Lecha 4, ApproachesA). We are not guilty, in perpetuity, of the sin committed by Adam and Chava. On this issue the Torah is clear: “Fathers shall not die because of their children, nor shall children die because of their fathers. Each individual will die in his own sin.” (Devarim 24:16) We are each held culpable only for our own failings and not for the failings of others, past, present or future. (See Bereishit: Lech Lecha 4, Approaches A for discussion concerning reconciliation of this concept with a seemingly contradictory biblical text) How, then, can these scholars suggest that each childbearing woman across history must somehow atone for a crime committed by her ancestor, at the beginning of time?

The key to understanding this approach may well lie in a distinction that we have noted previously (see ibid.). While Judaism absolutely rejects the Christian concept of “original sin,” we cannot deny the reality of “intergenerational reverberation.”

We are not responsible, in any way, for the transgression committed by Adam and Chava at the beginning of time. We are, however, affected by that sin’s ramifications. This is not a punishment, but a reality of life. Had Adam and Chava not sinned, we would now be living a very different existence in the Garden of Eden.

Similarly, we are all concretely connected to each other across the generations.

Such overarching life issues as where we are born, to whom, into what environment – and, in fact, whether or not we are born at all – are determined not only by God, but also by our parents and by those who came before them as well. Even more importantly, our decisions and actions today will critically affect the lives of our children and their progeny tomorrow.

At the decisive moment of childbirth, therefore, the Torah graphically reminds the new parents, through a series of rituals, of the phenomenon of “intergenerational reverberation.” The mother’s state of tuma, her consequent period of physical separation from her husband, the offerings she brings in the aftermath of these events, all result from actions committed by her primal ancestor, millennia earlier. The Torah’s message could not be clearer: We are each partially a product of what came before. How careful, then, must new parents be with their own continuing decisions and actions – for those very decisions and actions will help shape the lives of generations to come.

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Parshat Shemini: Sanctuary Sobriety

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra

Context

In the shadow of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic death, God turns to their father, Aharon, and commands:

Do not drink wine or intoxicating beverage, you and your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die; this is an eternal decree for your generations. In order to distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the impure and the pure, and to teach the children of Israel all of the statutes that God has spoken to them through Moshe.

While the text seems to clearly prohibit the consumption of any alcoholic beverage during the Kohen’s fulfillment of his functions as priest and educator, the Talmud, after extensive debate, limits the full biblical prohibition to the ingestion of “intoxicating amounts” of wine. In further discussion, many halachists delineate additional, less severe penalties both for the consumption of other intoxicating beverages and for smaller amounts of wine. Finally, most scholars extend the requirement of sobriety during the teaching and application of the law to all teachers and not only to the Kohanim.

Moving beyond the technical aspects of the law, numerous commentaries focus on its potential motivation. The Torah’s concern, they say, centers on the debilitating effects of alcohol. An individual who is inebriated to any degree will neither be able to properly execute the Sanctuary service nor appropriately engage in halachic discussion and decision making. The Torah therefore prohibits the consumption of wine as a safeguard against possible intoxication.

 

Questions

Why are these commandments necessary?

Given the intricate detail of the Sanctuary service; given the clear repeated divine warnings concerning the potential consequences of error in that service; given the overwhelming specter of Nadav and Avihu’s death as an apparent result of ritual deviation; given the fact that proper halachic decisions clearly require one’s full faculties; why would anyone assume that these functions could be performed in a state of intoxication? Why must the Torah state the obvious?

To go one step further, if the Torah’s fundamental concern is potential error in the Sanctuary service or in halachic deliberation, why frame the prohibition as a ban upon alcoholic beverages? Why not simply reiterate a general warning that these disciplines must be approached with awe, reverence and caution?

Finally, if this law is based on the potentially debilitating effects of alcohol, why is a difference drawn in the Talmud between wine and other intoxicating beverages? Shouldn’t all substances that could potentially lead to inebriation be equally prohibited?

Approaches

A

An astute observation made by a museum guide during one of my first trips to Israel can help us frame an answer to these questions.

“You can deduce,” he said, “common practice within a society from the legal edicts enacted by its government.”

“Centuries from now,” he continued to explain, “when the ruins of this museum are excavated, archaeologists will not find signs in the rubble stating ‘No bicycle riding.’ Since it is not current common practice in our day to ride bicycles through museums, legal postings prohibiting such behavior are not necessary and will not be part of the archaeological record.

“Excavators will, however, find ‘No smoking’ signs. This discovery will lead them to correctly surmise that smoking was likely to occur in public buildings during the twentieth to twenty-first centuries and that the administrators of this museum moved to prevent such activity.”

B

This comment may well shed light on the Torah’s concern for the sobriety of the Kohanim.

God finds it necessary to prohibit the consumption of wine during ritual and intellectual religious activity in response to “common practice” of the time.

The use of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs was an integral component of the religious rites of many ancient cultures. Rather than viewing inebriation and similar “escapist” behaviors as impediments to spiritual search, these societies considered the use of psychoactive substances an essential prerequisite of that very search.

Archaeological evidence, in fact, traces the use of psychoactive drugs in every age and on every continent from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, the term entheogen (meaning literally “generating the divine within”) has been coined to refer to vision-producing drugs taken to bring on a spiritual experience. (Gordon Wasson, The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), xiv) The use of such substances, many have believed across the ages, enables man to loosen the shackles of his earthly existence and truly encounter the Divine.

In direct opposition to this approach, normative Judaism preaches an “earthly” encounter with our Creator. As we have consistently seen (see Shmot: Shmot 3, Approaches D, E; Yitro 2, Approaches C, D), one of the Torah’s primary messages is that God is to be found and experienced in this world, with our feet firmly planted on the ground. The Sforno maintains that Moshe, our greatest prophet, achieved his greatness specifically because of his ability to relate to God without relinquishing his physical senses. (Sforno, Shmot 33:11)

The ban on alcoholic consumption in specific settings, therefore, does not emerge solely from apprehension over alcohol’s potentially debilitating effects. A much more fundamental philosophical issue is reflected in this prohibition.

God’s message to His people is once again clear: I am not to be found in the mists at the summit of Sinai. I am not to be encountered in esoteric visions or “out of body” experiences. You are to find Me in your world through performance of My mitzvot, through the sober study, application and living of My law.

C

We can now also understand, as well, the distinction made in the law between wine and other intoxicating substances. Wine, even more than other psychoactive materials, has long occupied a particular place in religious ritual. This fact is evidenced at both extremes within Jewish law. On the one hand, because of the unique status of wine in pagan culture, the Torah mandates the prohibition of yayin nesech (wine that has been used for idolatrous purposes and is, therefore, prohibited to all Jews at all times). On the other hand, wine, in moderation, finds its positive place within Jewish practice, used to mark special occasions and events.

Had the Torah’s only concern been for potential error on the part of the Kohanim, all intoxicating beverages would have been treated equally. By singling wine out for special attention, however, the Torah communicates that there is more to this prohibition than meets the eye. Wine used properly and in moderation, the Torah teaches, like all of God’s physical creations, enhances our appreciation of the Divine. When used to escape reality, however, all psychoactive substances undermine our spiritual search, which is predicated on creating a union in our lives between heaven and earth.

D

At the dawn of our history, as the spiritual search of our nation begins, God again reiterates the distinction between Judaism and the surrounding cultures. Others may find their spiritual path predicated upon an escape from the realities of the physical world. Our path, however, is based upon the embrace and sanctification of that very world.

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Parshat Tzav: Manifest Destiny

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Questions

Why is the priestly role within Judaism inherited and not “earned”? Why is honor given, to this day, to a Kohen simply because of his lineage?

Approaches

A review of the Torah’s outline for Jewish society, from both a historical and a legal perspective, reveals a fascinating tension and interplay between inherited and earned roles and rights.

A

Certain roles within our tradition are inherited in perpetuity. All male descendents of Aharon are automatically Kohanim, while all male descendents of the tribe of Levi are, of course, Leviim (those who serve within the Temple). Within each Jewish family, firstborn males are accorded specific rights. (Devarim 21:17) Jewish men and women have different halachic obligations from birth. (Mishna Kiddushin 1:7) Once David becomes king all authentic royalty descends from the Davidic dynasty. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 1:7–10) Even Jewish identity is unalterably inherited through one’s mother. (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 68b) According to Jewish law while someone can certainly convert to Judaism, a born or converted Jew cannot “convert out.” (Ibid., Sanhedrin 44a)

B

On the other hand, other critical roles within Jewish society are clearly earned. Although the Torah is silent on the subject, Midrashic literature clearly reflects the position that God’s choice of Avraham is far from arbitrary. Instead, the first patriarch secures his position as the progenitor of the Jewish people only through years of lonely philosophical struggle and search. (Zohar 1:86a; Midrash Rabba Bereishit 38:13; Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 14:2) Moshe, the paradigm of leadership and the progenitor of rabbinic leadership, rises to greatness as a result of his own initiative. (Shmot 2:11–12) Sages, scholars, rabbis and teachers across the ages earn their positions of authority by dint of scholarship and character. More than a few of the scholars of the Mishna and Talmud rise from humble origins, including Shmaya and Avtalyon, (Talmud Bavli Gittin 57b) Hillel, (Ibid., Yoma 35b) Rabbi Akiva, (Ibid., Ketubot 62b; Pesachim 49b; Rambam, introduction to the Mishneh Torah) Reish Lakish (Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 84a) and others.

C

Most fascinating of all is the tension inherent between these two potential paths of communal participation: what happens when birth roles and earned roles collide.

The pattern established in the patriarchal era, for example, is particularly telling. On the one hand, the concept of birth privilege is already recognized, as can be seen most clearly in the struggle between Yaakov and Esav for the title of firstborn. (Bereishit 25:29–34) And yet, in each generation of this historical period, the firstborn loses his rights to a younger sibling. Yitzchak, not Yishmael, is heir to his father’s legacy. (Ibid., 21:12) Yaakov supplants his older brother, Esav, in the struggle for Yitzchak’s blessing. (Ibid., 27–28:5) Yehuda, Yosef and Levi each receive a dimension of the leadership role which was to rightfully have been Reuven’s, as the firstborn. (Ibid., 49:1–27; Devarim 33:8–11) This pattern continues in the generations that follow as Yosef’s younger son Ephraim is given precedence over the older Menashe (Bereishit 48:13–19) and as Moshe overshadows his older brother, Aharon.

Though the firstborn Israelite males are originally designated for service within the Temple, they lose that privilege through their participation in the sin of the golden calf and the Levites are appointed in their stead. (Bamidbar 3:11–13; Rashi, Bamidbar 3:2) Although not originally designated to serve as a Kohen, Aharon’s grandson, Pinchas, rises to that role and, according to some authorities, his descendents serve as Kohanim Gedolim (High Priests), in reward for Pinchas’s courageous acts in defense of God’s honor. (Bamidbar 25:10–13; Rashi, Bamidbar 25:13; Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 25:12)

Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)

Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.

Full descendents of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept God’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to God’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)

The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.

Points to Ponder

A carefully crafted balance between birth and earned-roles has helped ensure the continuity of Jewish society across the ages. The collision of these roles at the cutting edge of Jewish life today may well shape the course of our people’s future.

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Parshat Vayikra: The Leadership Quandary

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text Vayikra

The Leadership Quandary

Context

As mentioned in the previous study, the Torah outlines a series of cases where acts committed b’shogeig give rise to obligatory sin offerings. Covered in the text are unintentional sins committed by priests, communities, rulers and individuals.

In each of the above situations the Torah raises the possibility of sin, with one glaring exception…

When the Torah describes the potential sin of a nasi (leader), the text reads: Asher nasi yecheta, “When a leader sins…”

Question

Why does the Torah state “when a leader sins” rather than “if a leader sins”?

Approaches

A

There are scholars who are willing to embrace the pshat of this phrase and the troubling philosophical message it conveys. This straightforward approach is mirrored in the comments of the Sforno: “[The Torah states] ‘When a leader sins’ …for, after all, it is expected that he will sin.”(Sforno, ibid.)

At the dawn of history, the Torah establishes a truth most famously verbalized centuries later by the nineteenth-century moralist Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887)

Through a simple twist of text, God warns of the dangers of leadership. From the Torah’s perspective the issue is not “if a leader will sin” but “when a leader will sin.” Whether because of the corrupting influence of power or simply because of the risks a leader must take, the assumption of a leadership position carries with it the inevitability of sin.

What, however, is the lesson the Torah wishes to convey? If sin and leadership are synonymous, does the Torah’s moral system discourage the assumption of leadership roles?

B

A strange Talmudic passage may well shed light upon the rabbinic attitude towards the interface between leadership and sin.

The rabbis taught: Four individuals died … not as a result of their own sins but from the mortality introduced into man’s existence, … in the Garden of Eden]. They were: Binyamin, the son of Yaakov; Amram, the father of Moshe; Yishai, the father of David; Kil’av, the son of David. (Bava Batra 17a)

The contemporary scholar Rabbi Zevulun Charlop notes that the Talmudic identification of each of these individuals is strange. Why, he asks, doesn’t the Talmud simply list their names? Why identify each historical figure by his relationship to another: Binyamin, the son of Yaakov; Amram, the father of Moshe; Yishai, the father of David; Kil’av, the son of David?

Clearly, the Talmud wants us to compare each of these four individuals to a more well-known relative. When we do so, a striking truth emerges. Each of the four figures identified in the Talmud as having died “without sin” pales in comparison to a close relative who cannot make that claim. While some Midrashic traditions maintain otherwise [As we have noted before (see Unlocking the Torah Text on Bereishit), a spectrum of opinion exists within rabbinic thought concerning the potential fallibility of biblical heroes, some sages refusing to see any possible failing on the part of the heroes of the Torah and Tanach.], the straightforward reading of events indicates that Yaakov, Moshe and David certainly sinned, and that their sins are recorded for posterity in the Tanach and rabbinic literature. Nonetheless, their place in Jewish history is unsurpassed. In spite of faults and human failings, Yaakov remains the greatest of our patriarchs, (Midrash Sechel Tov Bereishit 33) Moshe the greatest of our prophets, (Devarim 34:10) David the greatest of our kings. (Midrash Tehillim Mizmor 1)

Is it preferable to be Binyamin or Yaakov, Amram or Moshe, Yishai or David, Kil’av or David? While all of these personalities were righteous men deserving of emulation, the Talmud’s answer is clear: Better to risk sin and rise to leadership than to remain unblemished in the shadows.

Points to Ponder

A cursory glance at trends within Jewish day school and yeshiva education today reveals that we are not training the best of our children towards Jewish communal leadership.

So much emphasis is placed in the “yeshiva world” on the goals of personal piety and Torah study that many of our brightest are loathe to venture outside the walls of the beit midrash (house of study). Success within the system is defined by a willingness to engage in full-time Torah study. As a result, many young men and women whose contributions to the Jewish nation are potentially invaluable remain cloistered, unwilling to take the risks associated with involvement with the community at large.

At the same time, for years, the choice of a career in Jewish leadership has rarely been promoted by parents in the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. Within those sectors, the rabbinate is generally perceived as “no job for a good Jewish boy” and teaching is often discouraged as a vocational choice. The hours in both the communal and educational spheres are seen as long, the burdens overwhelming, the responsibilities great, the social position lonely, the material rewards (in many cases) limited.

The rabbis, already in Talmudic times, acknowledged the moral risks inherent in positions of power. They determined, however, that the benefits of communal involvement far outweigh the cost. Today, we are challenged to recapture for ourselves and to communicate to our own children that sense of commitment and mission.

Thankfully, strides have been made to increase the professional stature and financial remuneration of those who choose careers in Jewish leadership. We still have a way to go, however, before those careers become as attractive and as respected as other opportunities available to the young men and women of our community.

The call to leadership is far from risk-free. Ignoring that call, however, carries the greatest risks of all.

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei: Exalted or Humble Origins?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Questions

Why does the Torah single out the basin and stand, both by omitting these items from the general reckoning and by specifying the origin of the copper used in the fashioning of these utensils?

What is the significance of the fact that these items were created from the mirrors donated by the women?

Approaches

Diametrically opposed positions are adopted by the commentaries as they strive to interpret the unique origin of the basin and its stand.

A

Various scholars, including the Ibn Ezra and the Sforno, believe that the mirrors were suitable for use in the Temple specifically because their owners rejected those items’ usual usage. Mirrors are used, then and today, for vain purposes, to cultivate personal beauty and attractiveness. The women who donated these mirrors, however, as evidenced by their contribution, rejected physical vanity and showed a deep desire to cultivate and focus on a continuing spiritual relationship with God.

Taking a radically different tack, but evidencing an equally negative attitude towards personal vanity, the Chizkuni and a number of the Tosafists maintain that the strange passage concerning the basin and stand refers, not to the origin of these items, but to their placement. The basin and stand were strategically placed, they say, between the Sanctuary and the Mizbeiach so that they could be seen by the women regularly congregating at the Sanctuary.

The water from the basin was used in the divine trial of a sota, a woman suspected of adultery. (Talmud Bavli Sota 15b) The very sight of these utensils, therefore, would serve as a reminder of the dangers of licentious behavior. (Chizkuni, Shmot 38:8; Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot, Shmot 38:8)

B

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those commentaries, represented by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who not only maintain that the basin and its stand were fashioned out of mirrors, but that the mirrors’ normal usage actually recommended them for this purpose. The Mishkan, says Hirsch, ultimately aims to influence the Israelites towards the sanctification of their lives. How appropriate, therefore, that specifically the basin, used by the Kohanim for the sanctification of their hands and feet as they enter the Mishkan, should be fashioned out of mirrors. The physical, sensual side of man is, thus, not excluded from the Sanctuary but is, instead, “the first and most essential object” of its sanctification. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shmot 38:8)

Hirsch’s position is entirely consonant with Judaism’s fundamental view that no aspect of human existence is inherently evil. The sensual side of man is a gift from God meant to be channeled into sanctified relationships of love and marriage. The very origin of the basin thus serves as a reminder that all aspects of our lives, properly directed, are potential mediums for holiness.

A beautiful tradition found in the Midrash and quoted by Rashi further reflects Judaism’s position that no external object or human characteristic is inherently evil, but that value is ultimately determined by usage (see Bereishit: Bereishit 1 Approaches F).

During the period of Egyptian slavery, the Midrash relates, Pharaoh decreed that the Israelites should not sleep at home or have relations with their wives. Intent on perpetuating the nation in the face of this fearsome edict, the Israelite women went down to the fields of labor and, looking into their mirrors together with their husbands, aroused the men’s desire. In this way the women succeeded in ensuring that the nation would “be fruitful and multiply.”

Now, after the dramatic Exodus from Egypt and the powerful Revelation at Sinai, the newly formed nation begins to build the Mishkan. The Israelite women wonder: What can we contribute to the Sanctuary?

As one, they congregate outside the Mishkan and present their mirrors to Moshe. Moshe’s reaction is swift and harsh: What use have we for such mirrors – for items created to satisfy the evil inclination?

God, however, intercedes: These items are dearer to Me than all else! Through these mirrors the women raised up “countless hosts” in Egypt. (Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 9; Rashi, Shmot 38:8)

The Midrash informs us that, in the words of Nehama Leibowitz: “The same instinct or impulse which can lead man to perversions, filth and destruction can also lead him to creativity, the building of a house and the continuity of the nation.” (Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, p. 694)

The basin and stand in the Sanctuary serve as a reminder that God grants us gifts. The value of these gifts, however, is determined by how we use them.