Friday, February 24, 2012

Parshat Terumah - 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 describes 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 artifacts 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 description 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 describe 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 descriptions here differ from the order in which the holy artifacts 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. He claims that Israel is only a nation by virtue of the Torah. Without the Torah, there would be no such thing as the Jewish nation. I think it very important to note that it is not enough to just "be Jewish" by virtue of our parentage. It does not suffice to have Jewish genes. A Jew is someone who shares the collective identity, aspirations and vision of the Jewish people as a whole. A Jew is a Jew because we have hundreds of years of history and Torah study under our collective belts. And for those after us to be Jewish, we must preserve our customs, our Torah and our way of life for them to experience too.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, February 17, 2012

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 circumstances 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 on a long-term contract so that they would be in a position to repay their debt. This raises another question, though - who would willingly take a thief into their home? With a distinct possibility that this person (a convicted criminal, no less) would be tempted to take the opportunity to pilfer from his house, what kind of homeowner would knowingly take a slave who was liable to steal?

In order to understand this, we must understand the Torah's concept of punishment. Here we learn something very interesting. Torah law does not condone incarceration as a punitive measure. This stands in stark opposition to almost every (if not every) other judicial system in existence. Hunting around on the web, I found an essay by a certain Rabbi Naftali Silberberg (click here for the full text,) where he explains the rationale: "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 depriving individuals of the most basic human desire, freedom, any less cruel than inflicting physical pain, he asks, before stating, "I believe that any prison inmate will answer that question in a nanosecond."

The point is well made. 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, by staying in an environment such as a prison, the convict remains unable 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. The concept of "Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh laZeh - All of Israel are responsible for one another" is one that echoes deeply in Jewish thought. There is no distinction between Jews; we are not allowed to think merely for ourselves. If we see that another Jew is having trouble in some way, it is our duty to come to his aid. And that holds true for both physical and spiritual needs.

I can't offer a full explanation as to why someone would choose to take a slave in, but it seems clear that the chance for restitution and rehabilitation is something that we must be careful to permit.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Parshat Yitro - פרשת יתרו

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹתְנוֹ: כִּי יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם לִדְרֹשׁ אֱלֹהִים. כִּי יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר בָּא אֵלַי וְשָׁפַטְתִּי בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֶת תּוֹרֹתָיו. - And Moshe said to his father-in-law: 'Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they will have a matter, it comes unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.'
(Exodus 18: 16-17)

In previous Divrei Torah on this Parsha, I have taken a look at why Yitro's story is told before that of the the giving of the Torah. This year I continue with that theme, albeit from a different angle.

In his commentary on this passage, Rashi goes to great lengths to explain how, even though it is possible that this series of events was preserved and written down in their true order, we should not consider this as far more likely than the possibility that its chronology was purposely rearranged. Irrespective of whether or not this episode was told out of sequence, we can be sure of one thing: there is a definite meaning to the fact that Yitro's story is related before that of the giving of the Torah. But what could that meaning be?

One event related is when Yitro rebukes his son-in-law, Moshe, for sitting in judgment before all of Israel. Yitro felt that it was improper for one man to be the sole judge over an entire nation and suggested that he should set up an hierarchical system instead. (Not too dissimilar to the kind of judicial system we are familiar with, might I add.)

I would like to tender that the reason this episode had to come first was so that we understand the nature of the ten commandments. These commandments were split into two categories; commandments that man was to keep between himself and God, and commandments than man keeps with others.

Looking at the verses above, we see that Moshe writes "כי יבא אלי העם - When the people will come to me", with the word יבא in the singular, but a little later the plural להם (to them) is used when it says, "כי-יהיה להם דבר - When they will have a matter". The explanation for this discrepancy sheds light on why this entire episode is placed here in the first place.

In D'rash V'Iyun, it is written that whereas people are often very particular with laws between themselves and God, they can often be less pernickety when dealing with the laws pertaining to inter-personal relationships. If someone has reason to believe that they might have mixed their meaty and milky utensils, for example, some people will be sure to go to their Rabbi and ask what to do. But when it comes to accidentally charging someone too much for something, for example, some people might permit themselves a degree of slack that would be inconceivable to them in the framework of the commandments that are related more directly to God. This was precisely the case in the verses above; the people would come to Moshe so he could settle disputes between them, but only when they had another reason for doing so. Only when the people had what they thought to be a more pressing concern - an issue pertaining to their observance of commandments in the category of Bein Adam l'Makom (Man-God commandments) - would they come before Moshe.

In setting up more courts, we may contend that Yitro encouraged the Jewish people to stop prioritising their relationships with God over their relationships between themselves. To be truly holy, it is necessary to observe both aspects equally. For this reason, I believe, this episode was related before that of the giving of the Torah; its lesson had to be absorbed first.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, February 03, 2012

Parshsat B'shalach - פרשת בשלח

"היה רבי מאיר אומר, כשעמדו ישראל על הים, היו שבטים מנצחים זה עם זה. זה אומר: אני יורד תחילה לים וזה אומר: אני יורד תחילה לים. מתוך שהיו עומדים וצווחים - קפץ שבטו של בנימין וירד לים תחילה. אמר לו רבי יהודה: לא כך היה מעשה, אלא זה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים וזה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים. מתוך שהיו עומדין ונוטלין עצה אלו באלו קפץ נחשון בן עמינדב וירד לים תחילה"

(סוטה ל"ו - ל"ז)

"Rebbe Meir would say, when Israel stood on [the edge of] the sea, the tribes argued amongst themselves. One would say, "I will enter [the waters] first", and another would say "I will go in to the sea first". While they were arguing, the tribe of Binyamin jumped and went down first into the sea. As it is stated: "There is Binyamin, the youngest, ruling them. Rabbi Yehuda said to him: It did not happen this way, but rather this one said, "I will not go down first into the sea", and this one said, "I will not go down first into the sea." But while they were standing there seeking each other's advice, Nachshon the son of Aminadav jumped and went down first into the sea." (Gemara Sotah 36b-37a)


In this week's parsha, the Bnei Yisrael, escaping Egypt, find themselves trapped. The Egyptians are hard on their heels, they camp on the edge of the Red Sea. The harsh desert surrounds them. Whichever way they go, there is no refuge. The situation is desperate.

At this point, we read of how the people split into four distinct groups. The first group is described as saying: "וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם. - 'And they said to Moshe: 'Were there no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Wherefore do you deal with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?''"

Overcome with fatalism, this group sees no future for their people other than death. The next group is recorded as resigning themselves to the impossibility of escape and so instead suggests to return to their former status as slaves. ( הֲלֹא-זֶה הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְמִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, חֲדַל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנַעַבְדָה אֶת-מִצְרָיִם: כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת-מִצְרַיִם, מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר.)

The next two groups are alluded to in Moshe's response. He tells the people not to fear, that they will never see the Egyptians again, that Hashem will battle on the Jews behalf and that they should remain silent. ( וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ--הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם: כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת-מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם--לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד, עַד-עוֹלָם. יְהוָה, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם; וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן.) The third group, evidently, wanted to put up a fair fight. And the fourth sought to find political reconciliation with the Egyptians. Moshe gave short shrift to both factions.

It is important to note that not all of Klal Yisrael was included in these four groups. In a fascinating D'var Torah I read online by Rav A. Leib Scheinbaum. There he notes a claim by Rav Hirshovitz that others took the appropriate action and prayed to Hashem. "They shut their ears to the warriors and to the spineless, to the assimilationists and the politicians" writes Rav Scheinbaum. Even though the four misguided groups existed, the majority of the people stayed faithful to Hashem.

And then while all of this was happening, one person decided to take action. After a failed attempt to enter the sea as Hashem had commanded, the Midrash tell us that Nachson ben Aminadav determined to make his move. Intriguingly, the famous story is not actually recorded in the text. But his bold, brave decision is nonetheless well-known.

Thinking this over, I think (credit to my roommate, Adam Nathan, for the inspiration), that we can compare the people at this time to the four groups of people alluded to by the Four Species waved at Sukkot. The Lulav, Etrog, Hadasim and Aravot are all said to represent a specific type of Jew. The Etrog represents the Jew who is commited to Torah and mitzvot, for it both tastes and smells pleasant. The Aravot, which has neither taste nor scent, represent those who do not engage in either Torah or Mitzvot. The Lulav, which has a pleasant taste, represents those who learn Torah. And finally the aromatic Hadasim are supposed to be a symbol for those who are kind and engage in good deeds.

In our Parsha, I believe we can safely equate Moshe (and his true followers) to be the Etrog. They balanced their observance of mitzvot with study of the Torah. The Aravot can be said to symbolise the Eruv Rav (interesting to note that ערבות and ערוב רב have the same root); that quarreling, provocative element who sought to complain and went about things the wrong way. And then the great majority of the people were those who stayed faithful to Hashem, but were not pro-active.

It is amongst this backdrop that Nachson ben Amindav acted. We don't know much about this man; this was his defining moment. Nachshon jumped in. A true Hadas. He lets his actions speak louder than his words and demonstrated real Mesirut Nefesh. Overcoming his hesitance, he demonstrated the power of committed, devoted action in the name of God. Nachson showed the power of action while others were rationalising and hesitating. Just as all the Arba Minim are needed in order to fulfill the mitzva of Netilat Lulav, so we see all four groups of Jews here in our story. And yet it is not the Etrog - Moshe Rabbeinu - who saves the day. Instead, it is a man of the people who makes the decisive move.

Not every Jew can be learned. Not every Jew has it in them to perform acts of kindness and bravery. Some have neither quality. And only few possess both. The most important thing is to recognise that we all have our role to play.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

Dedicated to someone very special. Thank you for taking the time to make your decision.