Sunday, February 28, 2010


In honour of the much remarked upon words of the Megilla, "V'nahafoch hu," meaning "and it was turned upside down," this d'var Torah is presented in a somewhat unusual format. And for those of you who like to keep their computer screen the right way up, don't worry, normal servcice is resumed below :)

Every week at the Hebrew University, the local Hillel hosts a learning session with free food. The people there are all very pleasant, I have a partner I learn with and oh, did I mention, there's free food! Anyway, every so often different speakers come in to share and speak with the students. About one moneth ago, when the program restarted after the semester break, a man callld Rabbi Amichai Salomon, from Tekoa, came in to share some early purim thoughts. With his permission, I'd like to share one of the things he taught that evening.

During the session, the mitzvah of blotting out Amalek's name was mentioned. The traditional enemy of the Jewish nation is called Amalek, an entity whose nature is disputed. Some call it another nation, some think it to be a characteristic, or set of characteristics and some even say that it represents the ebil inclination within every one of us. In the Purim story, Haman tried to have the Jewish nation killed and so we deem him to be an Amalekite. For this reason, we boo his name during the reading of the megillah. We derive this commandment from the phrase, "timche et zecher Amalek," which (when translated literally) means, "You shall erase the memory of Amalek".

A friend of mine remarked that this command seems rather contradictory. I too, had always wondered how it could be that whenever we read or even think about these words we are remembering Amalek, which was exactly what were supposed to avoid doing! How then, are we to take this mitzvah? Rabbi Salomon's answer, sourced from Breslov Chassidut, was that we should not translate the word in the meaning of "memory". The three letter Hebrew root ז-כ-ר has more than one meaning, and another form it may take is to mean "male". So instead of understanding this command as an imoerative to erase the memory of Amalek, we should understand it to denote a rather odd and vague command to erase the "masculine" of Amalek.

Rabbi Salomon explained that in Jewish thought there is a a concept of male and female, giver and received, yin and yang if you like, or thesis and antithesis. The male is a metaphor for the dominant force, which can be good and for bad. In the case of Amalek, such dominance is unwanted and clearly a bad thing. So instead of us being commanded to erase the memory of Amalek, he explained, we are told to wipe out the force of Amalek, which makes much more sense on a logical level. While it is very hard for us to remove something like a memory from our minds, we may achieve liberty by freeing ourselves from the shackles of outside influences and alien affects.

Purim Sameach!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Parshat T'tzaveh - פרשת תצוה

"ואתה תצוה את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד - Now you shall command Bnei Yisrael that they shall take for you pure, pressed olive oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually." (שמות כז:כא)

Rashi writes in his commentary on this Pasuk that the word כתית, crushed, means that the olives should be crushed so that the resulting oil may be used for the Menorah. He then explains that after this oil had been crushed and the first drop removed, the remaining oil would be unfit for this purpose and would be utilised for another task in the Mishkan; namely for use in the מנחות, the meal offerings.

HaRav Chanoch Ehrentreu, author of Kometz Hamincha, writes that if the two oils were of the same quality, of the same colour and essentially of the same stock, why should the second batch be proscribed from use in the Menorah? After all, if the only difference is that the first round of oil was produced by crushing and pressing and the second was made by being ground up, what was really so different about them that they would be assigned different roles?

Rav Ehrentreu answers by examing the functions of the tools in which these oil were to be used. He explains that if we stop to think what the Menorah represents, we may understand why this halacha exists. The light of the Menorah, so we learn, is meant to symbolise the Torah. The Torah is described as being a light in the darkness, dispelling ignorance and a lack of knowledge. The Menorah is the instrument that makes use of the oil we talk about above. The oil itself is described as being pure by necessity. That the oil should be pure seems obvious enough - would you expect all the tools and objects used in God's house to be anything less than of the very highest quality? The reason why the word pure is mentioned will be put in perspective later on. For the moment, we can make do with the basic explanation that just as the Torah is utterly pure, so too must the oil used for the lighting of the Menorah be pure.

The second halacha we learn in the verse above is that the oil is to be crushed. This, as Rashi elaborates, is pertaining to the oil used for the Menorah. Once that very first drop of oil had been extracted though, the oil processing continues. The crushed olives are then ground up so as to get every last bit of juice out of them. Rashi points out that for the first batch of oil, the oil destined for use in the Menorah, there may be no "שמרים" (sediments), in this batch, it is an inevitability that there will be sediments in the oil. In pointing us to the difference between the step of merely crushing the olives and then totally grinding them, Rashi hints to us how we are supposed to "acquire" Torah. Whereas kings may leave their kindgom as an inheritance for their children and while the rich may leave behind a large portion for their descendents, Torah is not something that can simply be acquired through inheritance. Each and every person has to make the effort to learn and to take his own portion, we learn.

Chazal, the sages of Israel, found a hint to this in the verse where the making of the Aron Hakodesh is described. There the word "ועשו", meaning "and you," is used. The usage of this word is not without significance; with all the other tools in the Bet Hamikdash, the word "ועשית", which also means "and you," is used. The difference is that when detailing the Aron Hakodesh, the ark that was to house the Torah within it, the plural version of the word was selected for usage. The reason for this subtle discrepancy, Chazal tender, is because each and every Jew has to take part in the Mitzvah of learning Torah. Other mitzvot are geared towards certain parts of the population, but in this mitzvah, everyone must work.

As such, it makes perfect sense to refer to the Shulchan, the table upon which the meal offerings were issued. Here the more normative form is used, as it says "ועשית שולחן", and you (singluar) shall make the table (שמות כה:כג). Just as a kingdom and wealth may be passed on, so too may physical possessions. Not every person has the need to work to acquire physical objects in his life. The meal offerings upon which were offered, though, were something that were designed to help bring us closer to Hashem. Now if we may make a contrast with the pure oil that was to be used for the Menorah, we can understand why the oil here had to be ground. Whereas there the oil had to be of the finest quality as it was representative of the total purity of Torah, here it was not just acceptable but even part of the process that it should include sediment. The toil by which this oil was produced resulted in part of the olive being left behind in the oil. For us to acquire that purest of things, the Torah, we learn that we have to invest ourselves. Hopefully now we can understand why the two kinds of oil were produced from the same stock, and yet one was banned from use in the other's role.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Purim Sameach!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Parshat T'rumah - פרשת תרומה

"וְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן, עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים: אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי, קֹמָתוֹ - They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half Amot in its length, and an Amah and a half in its width, and an Amah and a half in its height."
(שמות כה:י)

The verse above dsecribes the measurements of one of the boxes* of the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark that would later house the two tablets upon which the ten commandments were inscribed. As we continue reading this week's Parsha , we read of the other holy artefacts that were also contained in the Mishkan, the sanctuary where the people of Israel would pray and come to make offerings to Hashem.

To this end, the first of the two altars used are detailed here; the one for the ritual slaughter of animals. (The other was employed for the incense offerings.) So too we learn of the Shulchan, the table upon which special "show bread" was displayed, the Menorah which perpetually lit up the sanctuary and various other decorative features such as the curtains, lace hangings and the gate. But first comes the desciption of the blueprints for the Aron Hakodesh. This might seem obvious in one way, but I contend that this is not so obvious: instead of describing this house of worship, let us imagine that we were describing our own houses. How would we first set out our plans for a house that we would like to build? We certainly wouldn't start with the oven, or a big fireplace. Even if it were a dream house, neither would we start with a swimming pool! No, we would first decribe the outer appearance, setting out the dimensions of the entire house, then we would gradually get more specific, mentioning how many rooms, what each room is. Only then would we describe the contents of the house. But here we start with the description for the building of the Aron Hakodesh. Why would the contents of the house be built while the house is not yet standing?

Rav Bachya, points out here that the Torah's importance is reflected in the name of the thing that contained it; the name of the Aron Hakodesh, written ארון הקודש in Hebrew, derives from אורה, light, for the Torah is the real source of light of the world.

Ramban explains that if we were to follow simple logic, the Aron Hakodesh would not have been built first. As it happens, so it proved to be; the Aron was not built before the house that contained it. But this raises another question - why would the order of the desciptions here differ from the order in which the holy artefacts were eventually constructed? I find Ramban's answer to be beautiful in its simplicity, yet highly significant. He responds to this question by highlighting what is really the issue here. When one builds a house, what is really important? In our cases, it is so that we may be afforded shelter from the elements and from other inconveniences. Plush furnishings, for all their worth, are not the most important thing in the house - we are! So too here, we only have a need to build a house for Hashem because there is something we are storing within it. In this passage, Moshe was not speaking so much as an architect as much as a leader and teacher. He chose to first speak about the Aron, even though when it came to it, the Aron would be built later, because the Torah was the reason for the building, and not vice versa.

In my studies in university, I have learned of the classic definition of a nation by Benedict Anderson. He describes a nation as an "imagined community," a people who would otherwise hardly know each other but are part of the communal unit that we call a nation because they believe themselves to be bound together by shared ties. Whilst this may be correct in many instances, Rav Saadia Gaon disagrees somewhat, saying that Israel is only a nation by virtue of the Torah. Without the Torah, there would be no such thing as the Jewish nation. This is the real issue.

From a beautiful view over looking the Temple Mount, wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

* There were three boxes layered within one another.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I know it's sad, but I love ASCII art.

I just saw this and had to share it somewhere:

▄▅█ ██ ████▅▄▃▂


For those of who are really geeky, I refer you to Asciimation. I must warn you; it's epic!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I have an exam in under three hours...

I have an exam in under three hours, but you wouldn't know it. I've completely given up on passing this one as I have been ill over the last three days or so and haven't managed to revise. So what the heck - I'm not going to break into a sweat; I'll just do "Moed Bet."

Moed Bet is best rendered into English as "Time B," or my figuratively, "take two." Apparently the Moed Bet exams are a little harder, but I haven't got much option. In any case, it seem like most of my course will be there the second time round as I am a social sciences student, and this particular exam is the one that none of us want to study; it's a module in statistics. The whole course is filled with liberal arts minds; almost none of us have any desire to study something based on figures, but the powers that be. As we like to remind ourselves when struggling with such concepts as standard deviation and variance; "Statistics is the bane of social sciences students; it's not just me who hates this subject with a passion." It's some consolation to know that we all are up against a common enemy. In actual fact, it's almost pleasant to know that I'm struggling so badly in this particular module - I have had almost no stress at all and am at total inner peace. I know that within a month or two I will have to sit the retake exam, but until then, I am experiencing the liberty borne of knowing I am destined to fail this exam :)

Despite my personal aversion to numbers, I cannot deny that mathematics is highly important. The work produced by the scientists and mathemeticians here in the Holy Land is something to be especially proud of. In fact, take a peek at the clip below for the latest mind-boggling invention our home-grown boffins have come up with. Now boycott that!

*Hat tip to Jonathan Sacerdoti for finding this and to Chas Newkey-Burden of OyVaGoy for locating a Youtube version of the clip.

Stop the press!

What on earth is this?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Once in a while...

Every so often in Israel, I stumble across things that really cause me to worry.

As I was leaving shul one morning last month I took the photograph below. Apparently this father and son ride the mean streets of Jerusalem together. It looks kind of cute if you ask me, if you conveniently ignore the minor issue that this tomfoolery is only mildy life-threatening. Yes, it's even more dangerous than my ill-advised headphone-enhanced urban cycling. Seriously, what kind of responsible parent would even dream of giving an infant a ride on the back of a speeding motorcycle through a bustling city like Jerusalem, a town with tight streets and angry motorists?

It seemed like the kid in question actually wasn't all too fussed and that he was fairly used to this "hold on to Aba for dear life" drill, but still - kids are liable to get distracted or do stupid things.

You really do have to wonder about some people's common sense.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Parshat Mishpatim - פרשת משפטים

" כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי, שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד; וּבַשְּׁבִעִת--יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי, חִנָּם - When you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing."
(שמות כא:ב)

Growing up as a religious Jew, I never thought to question the ethics and morals of slavery within Judaism. Of course I knew that slavery was "wrong," but I never stopped to consider how it could be that a Jew could be a slave to his fellow Jew. Now that I think about it, the question seems glaring; how could such a thing be defensible on any level?

One of my favourite books, the Yalkut Leckach Tov, quotes Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm, Lithuania, who explains that we must pay attention to the circumstance of these slaves. He points out that it wasn't possible to simply elect to become a slave; slaves were people who had been found to be thieves but didn't have the means to pay back the victim of their crime. Instead, they would have to effectively loan themselves out n a long-term contract so that they may repay their debt. This raises another question, though - who would take in a thief? It was a distinct possibility that this person would take the opportunity to pilfer from his house. What kind of homeowner would willingly take buy a slave who was liable to steal?

We learn something more interesting. Torah law does not condone incarceration as a punitive measure. As Rabbi Naftali Silberberg writes, (click here for the full text,) "A person who does not deserve to die must be allowed to be productive in the fullest sense, a prospect which is impossible when confined in prison.

Indeed, it can conceivably be argued that long term incarceration violates the Eighth Amendment of the [American] Constitution which prohibits 'cruel and unusual punishment.' Is robbing an individual of the most basic human desire/need--freedom--less cruel than inflicting physical pain? I believe that any prison inmate will answer that question in a nanosecond."

The Jewish way of thinking dictates that we don't want a thief to be in prison for a number of reasons. First of all, there is a very real chance that he may be influenced and learn from the other inmates. Moreover, be being an environment such as a prison, he is never able to get away from his crime - the stark surroundings are a constant reminder to his mistake. After leaving the prison, it is a well-document a phenomenon that criminals have trouble adjusting to a new way of life and find it hard to go back to work. In addition to all this, a prisoner's family will be left to fend for themselves for the time that he is locked up. If the going gets tough for them, it is eminently possible that they will also turn to a life of crime. All in all, prison has many negative effects and so it seems quite understandable that Jewish law doesn't utilise this option.

Instead, in our case, the thief is taken into somebody else's home. When he is in close proximity to decent, honest people, it is almost assured that he will learn from their proper conduct. Moreover, many laws govern how a homeowner may treat his slave. Indeed, "slave" is hardly a fitting description for the position the former thief fulfills. For example, we learn in the Talmud Yerushalmi that if the homeowner only has one pillow available between the two of them, he is commanded to give it to his "guest" and sleep a little rougher than he usually might.

Yes, all this sounds rather altruistic, but apparently it worked to good effect in days gone by. It is also interesting to think now that the slavery described above is actually a good and moral way of correcting a person's character instead of forcing them through the purgatory that is prison.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Parshat Yitro - פרשת יתרו

Twice we read the ten commandments in the Torah, once here in Parshat Yitro, and once when Moshe recounts Matan Torah, in Parshat V’etchanan in the fifth bok of the Torah, D'varim. Despite one of the grandest and most important events to occur in the entire Torah being detailed in it, for some reason, this week's parsha is named not in some way after the the giving of the ten commandments, but rather is named after a convert to Judaism who was, if we are honest with ourselves, most famous for being Moshe's father in law. There is a question that begs to be asked: of all the characters in the Torah, how come Yitro deserves this honour? His son-in-law, Moshe, did not recieve such a distinction, neither did his brother, Aharon who was the Kohen Gadol. Surely Moshe, the man who received the Torah from Hashem, deserved this honour more? Why has this week's Parsha been named after Yitro?

If we look at the end of the first Aliyah of this week’s reading, we see the sentence, "עתה ידעתי כי גדול ה' מכל האלהים כי בדבר אשר זדו עליהם - Now I know that Hashem is greater than the gods for the matter which they did to them [the Jews]."

The classic understanding is that Yitro saw the awesome miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, saw that Hashem exerted total control over the natural forces of the world, and as such recognised Hashem as the one true God. This is certainly true, but the Ramban opens up another dimension to Yitro’s perspective on what turned out to be a watershed moment in his life.

If we analyse the words closely, we notice the word זדו, Zadu. This comes from the same root as the word מיזד, Maizid – Hebrew for intentional. There is a famous question – were the Mitzri’im (the Egyptians) really responsible for their fulfilling of the ancient and well known prophesy that the Jewish people were to be sold into slavery and oppressed? After all, they were merely messengers of God, enacting the prophesy? The Mitzri’im surely couldn’t be held accountable for that?!

The answer that the Ramban gives is illuminating. He explains that the Mitzri’im correctly state that they were fulfilling the prophesy by enslaving and subjugating the Jews, but they went above and beyond the prophesy by killing Jews by throwing them into the Nile. This was the Zadu, this was their malicious intent that they were being punished for.

So now, back to our point. Yitro sees Am Yisrael make their miraculous getaway through the sea, and moments later, the same sea closes in on the Egyptians and condemns them to their deaths. He sees how those who were the nastiest and most despicable to the Jews tossed about like corks and endured a very slow and painful demise, whereas those who were less spiteful died faster deaths, some sinking straight to the seabed.

What impressed Yitro was not that Hashem’s display of control over nature; any old “god” would dictate and direct nature’s forces. What impressed Yitro was Hashem’s way of Middah-K’neged-Midah, (acting in a manner corresponding to an original action,) that despite waiting over one hundred years and tolerating all the unnecessary suffering imposed on the Jewish people, Hashem exacted a fitting punishment on every last Egyptian. Yitro wasn’t impressed by Hashem’s dominance over nature; any pretender to Hashem’s crown would claim a certain level of authority and supremacy over the natural world. No, what Yitro was impressed by was that this God, the true God, was one who clearly played a role in history and continued to oversee events to the present day. Yitro understood then that all that Hashem had done, and was continuing to do was part of the master plan.

Incidentally, later in our Sidra, we read of Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah. There are many interesting things that we can talk about there, but one thing I would like to focus on is the use of synaesthesia, when the Pasuk there famously says that the people saw the thunder. Interestingly enough, of all the two senses to cross over, Hashem caused our hearing to cross with our vision, and only in one way. What is the meaning of this?

We often say the words “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad - Hear O Isreal, Hashem is our Lord, Hashem is one." Unfortunately, we all too often seem to accept the wording blindly, without thinking to question the odd sentence structure. The meaning and the concept of the entire sentence is clear enough, but the wording is a little odd. What indeed is so special about the word Sh’ma that it merits to be included in the single most important line in Judaism? What is it about the faculty of hearing that it deserves a mention in Judaism’s cardinal prayer and statement of faith?

The answer, in short, can be stated that as long as we live in this “Alma d’Sfaika,” this World of Doubt, this world that is known as an “Alma D’shikra,” a World of Lies, we cannot rely on our sense of vision to perceive things as they truly are. When was the last time a man could look at a woman and tell that she was a good person just by “checking her out?” Such a concept is laughable in this world. We can’t presume to know anything about anything by looking at it. The only way to know for sure is by listening to something, by slowly and closely analysing it. But at Har Sinai, when we were in such close proximity to Hashem, we experienced a return to the state of Adam HaRishon whereby our senses all told us the same thing, whereby they all told us the absolute truth. In this context we can understand the concept of Am Yisrael seeing the Kolot, because their hearing and their seeing were no different from one another. We can now understand that which normally has to be heard, (as in Sh’ma Yisrael – the knowledge of Hashem,) was so obvious and clear that Am Yisrael could clearly perceive through even the most deceiving of the senses.

Now if we return to Yitro, we understand that Yitro had his own revelation *before* that of Am Yisrael’s. Whereas many marvelled at Hashem’s spectacular rule over nature, Yitro understood what the miracles truly signified – Hashem’s eternal reign. Yitro, the former priest correctly perceived Hashem and correctly understood what a real God, THE real God is. It may well be for this reason that Yitro deserved the merit of having the portion of Matan Torah allotted to the Parsha with his name.

This D’var Torah is adapted from the words of R’ Raphael Katz of Netanya and R’ Daniel Katz of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach!