Engagement Party Speech

Engagement Party Speech

For those of whom I have not yet been fortunate enough to meet, I’d like to start with a little bit about who I am. I am currently in my first year of a teaching degree focusing on Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy. I became interested in teaching, and in teaching Jewish Philosophy in particular, after attending Yeshivat Orayta, a post-High School American yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. One concept from my learning there that I found to be particularly foundational for my growth was the Kabbalistic idea of the Tsimtsum.

The Tsimtsum (from the root “לצמצם” meaning to contract or withdraw) is a concept from the teachings of the Arizal which, while rooted in earlier sources, depicted a whole new way to understand Creation. The tsimtsum depicts the primary act of creation as ‘א creating a space within Himself in which reality as we know it will exist. This deals with a variety of philosophical problems regarding creation, while perhaps creating a slew of new ones, and there are many incredible and inspiring concepts built upon this idea. I was incredibly moved by this idea and I based much of my personal philosophy upon it. However, a few months into my relationship with Tikva I realized that I had not previously understood its full significance.

Not too long after Tikva and I began dating, someone asked me if I was going to be in Jerusalem for shabbat. I responded that I didn’t know yet, but as I did so it occurred to me that what I really meant was, “we don’t know, we haven’t talked about it yet.” I had stopped thinking of shabbat plans, of all my plans really, as being simply about me, but rather they were about me and Tikva together. I no longer identified simply as myself, but rather as part of a unit composed of both myself and Tikva. I had made a space within my identity, where I wasn’t concerned with my self but with hers. I no longer thought about “my concerns” and “her concerns”, but about “our concerns. I had experienced my own personal Tsimtsum.

This merging of concerns; this sense of a complex identity; this is what the Arizal is conveying with the metaphor of the Tsimtsum. Our existence and identity as creations, our concerns, are a very real part of ‘א’s concerns. And in regards to our own perspective, we shouldn’t just be concerned with ourselves and our own personal identities. As parts of a much larger whole, it is our job to not feel that god’s concerns, and His goals for creation, are external matters, but that they are very much our own concerns. We have to feel as if the communal concerns are our own personal concerns, because that’s what they are. We are pieces of a much larger whole, and our identities and concerns ought to reflect that.

On that note, Tikva and I would like to thank everyone here, and those who could not come today, for all of their enthusiasm and support. The level of communal excitement we’ve encountered has been nothing short of incredible. Thank you all so much!


Carbs and Keys – Schlissel Challah

There’s been a lot of talk floating around the internet in the last week regarding Schlissel Challah, the custom of baking challah either in the shape of keyskey-challah or with an actual key pressed into the bottom on the shabbat after Pesach. While slim to none of the participants have been in support of the custom, opinions have ranged from thinking of Schlissel Challah as a pointless but tolerable practice to thinking of it as actual Avodah Zarah. Many have used the minhag as a jumping off point for larger discussions about Judaism, such as open-mindedness and hypocrisy, or Hishtadlut (the idea that personal initiative is both necessary and important in everyday life). What these discussions have largely missed is that Schlissel Challah isn’t it’s own phenomenon, rather it is part of a much larger stream of thought in Judaism.

Since its very beginning, Judaism has possessed both Mystical and Rationalist streams of thought. This dichotomy can be found even in the Torah itself, such as in the discussion of the reasons for Korbanot in Vayikra 17:5-7. The presence of this debate in midrashei HaZaL is so prevalent that A.J. Heschel wrote his three-volume magnum opus, Torah Min HaShamayim BeAspeklariah Shel HaDorot, on the topic. This split continued through the generations, with Mysticism peaking with the Arizal and the Kabbalistic Renaissance in Tzefat, and Rationalism probably peaking with Rambam and Ralbag. Schlissel Challah, while it only goes back to the Hasidic Movement, is a manifestation of this much larger debate.

Part of this debate is the question of the greater purpose of mitzvoth. Rationalists tend to view mitzvoth as being for the purpose of Mankind and its improvement, on global, societal, and individual levels. Torah learning enables people to keep halakha and encourages intelligence. Giving tsedakah provides support for the destitute while making the giver more charitable. Mysticism sees mitzvoth as being for the sake of ‘א and the mystical health and sustenance of reality. Learning Torah brings godly sustenance to all levels of reality. The giving of tsedakah is a mystical necessity for the world. While some thinkers, such as Ramchal, created syntheses that utilized aspects of both approaches, most approaches to the purpose of mitzvoth fall squarely into one of these two camps.

One aspect of the debate regarding Schlissel Challah has to do with this idea of spiritual mechanics and the meta-divine. Part of the innovation of Monotheism that Judaism brought to the world was the absence of meta-divine, things that are outside of ‘א. Idolatry is thus based on the idea that there’s something outside of ‘א. This means that any implication of sustenance or help being received via a process, without the direct influence of ‘א, is absolutely forbidden.[1] Thus assuming that putting a key in a piece of bread would cause one to receive more sustenance would be absolutely forbidden. However, that’s not the only way to view segulot such as Schlissel Challah. This negative view assumes that segulot somehow affect a system of reality outside of ‘א, but that’s only one way to conceive of such a system. Such a system of mystical processes could just as easily be a part of ‘א, or a system he set up that is totally within his control. If that were the case then Schlissel Challah would not at all be Avodah Zarah. How you conceive of segulot is just a question of how you conceive of reality, and that is already very subjective.[2]

A perfect example of the way this debate affects mitzvoth is the commandment of Shiluah HaKen, sending away the mother bird before taking its eggs.[3] The rationalist approach to this mitzvah believes that it’s purpose is to make man more merciful. The mitzvah is not an obligation so much as a proper method. It’s not that a person is commanded to take eggs and send away a mother bird, rather if a person is going to take the eggs, then they must send away the mother first, as this is a more merciful method for getting the eggs. The mystical approach is completely different. From the mystical perspective, the command is intended to activate ‘א’s attribute of Mercy to influence the Nation of Israel. Thus the mitzvah of Shiluah HaKen is not simply a method, but a full on obligation. This is more than just a theoretical debate. The first practical difference is whether or not a person should search out eggs to find. From the rationalist approach, this mitzvah is not an obligation. Like the command to give a get, a divorce document, it is simply the proper method to perform a certain task, if and only if a person finds this situation before them. Without the need for the eggs, the mitzvah would decrease a person’s compassion rather than increase it. For a mystic the command is a full-on obligation. The second ramification of the debate isn’t just about whether or not one must perform the mitzvah, but whether one is even allowed to. According to many who say that the mitzvah is a matter of mercy, sending the mother bird away unnecessarily would fall under the biblical prohibition regarding cruelty to animals. Thus a person who did not need the eggs would actually be prohibited from fulfilling the mitzvah. From the mystical perspective this issue does not exist by Shiluah HaKen, and nobody claims that Schlissel Challah is anywhere near that problematic.

The practice of baking Schlissel Challah can be, and has been, challenged on numerous grounds. However, all of these attacks come from a fundamentally different perspective than that of those who actually practice the rite.[4] Challenging Schlissel Challah is itself essentially meaningless, as all a person is really doing is challenging the axioms upon which the practice of Schlissel Challah is based, and thus challenging a very large stream of the modern Orthodox world-view. This isn’t certainly allowed, but a person should be conscious that this is more or less what they are doing when they challenge Schlissel Challah, and it begs the question of if it’s even worth it. As pointed out above, from the Rationalist prospect, Schlissel Challah is hardly as problematic as Shiluah HaKen. The advantage for challenging Schlissel Challah would be its relatively recent development compared to other rituals, but it’s still a matter of differing axioms more than anything else. At that point, one might as well challenge Shiluah HaKen, a rite practiced commonly in the modern era, despite possibly being prohibited on a Biblical level. Cruelty to animals is a big deal, and something that ought to get paid more attention to in modern Judaism. If you’re going to challenge mystical practices, one involving animal cruelty would be a much better place to start. Otherwise, it might be worth getting used to the fact Judaism always has included both Rationalist and Mystical approaches, and it probably always will.


[1] It’s unclear to what degree practitioners actually believe there is a direct causative relationship between putting the key in the bread and receiving more sustenance. For many, the rite is simply a reminder that ‘א is the source of all sustenance, certainly a Jewish concept.

[2] It’s worth noting that a person can object to segulot without being a rationalist. HaRav Yaakov Peretz, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of the Beit Midrash Sefaradi, is known for saying that he knows of “four segulot better than any others: Torah, Tefillah, Teshuva, and Tsedakah.” While he clearly is not denying the potential validity and power of segulot, he simply believes that they’re not meant to be the focus of a jew’s attention.

[3] For more information on this topic, see Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha, a truly excellent resource.

[4] Ignoring, of course, those who make Schlissel Challah simply as a reminder that all sustenance really comes from ‘א.

Parashat Kedoshim 5774 – On Kedushah and the Separation of Nations

וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי

Chapters 18-20 of Sefer Vayikra form one unit dealing with two very distinct subjects in three separate parts . Chapter 18 discusses the laws of forbidden sexual relationships, chapter 19 discusses a variety of laws related to Kedushah, and chapter 20 discusses both themes together. Through this unity, Rashi reasons that the definition of Kedushah[1] is separation from inappropriate sexual relations, a definition which fits clearly with the following juxtaposition:

You shall be holy: Separate (Root: פרש) yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness, [for example:], “[They (the kohanim) shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned…I, the Lord, Who sanctifies you [am holy]” (Lev. 21:7-8); and, “he shall not profane his offspring…I am the Lord, Who sanctifies him” (Lev. 21:15); and, “They shall be holy…[They shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned” (Lev. 21:6-7).[2]

However, a close study of the text involved demonstrates that this is just the beginning of a much larger picture.

There are many ways of determining the topic and unity of a passage in Tanakh. One of the key methods is through the use of keywords, words that are repeated several times. In chapters 18-21 we find four keywords, namely “laws” (root: חק), “rules” (root: שפט), “keep” (root: שמר), and “holy” (root: קדש). “Laws,” “Rules,” and “Holy” all show up ten times while “Keep” appears seven times[3], both numbers of biblical import, which highlights the thematic role of each of these ideas.

Another method of determining thematic importance is through parallels at the beginning and end of a unit, such a the parallel between 18:3-5 and 20:22-23:

3 You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. 4 My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God. 5 You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.[4]

22 You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out. 23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them.

This parallel denotes the beginning and end of the section while also reinforcing the topic ideas of Laws and Rules. What is not seen to be a topic, however, is separation from sexual impropriety. Yet it is undeniably a large part of the passage. So what then can be said of the definition of Kedushah from this context?

While Separation (פרישות) is not found in this section at all, and certainly not attached to Kedushah, there is a very similar word that is used here in context of Kedushah. Vayikra 20:24-26 discusses the idea that Israel is “set apart” (root: בדל).

24 and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. 25 So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. 26 You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Thus Kedushah is not simply about Separation, but about being distinguished and set apart.

A perfect demonstration of this is found in the law of shaatnez, found in Vayikra 19:19[5]:

“You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.”

This law is generally interpreted as a symbolic law meant to teach man about the importance of separating between distinct realms. It is often taken as being directed against disorder[6] or intermarriage[7]. However, the assumption that shaatnez is inherently problematic, if only on a symbolic level, is hard to maintain once one takes a look at the broader context of the Torah. Due to the fact that shaatnez is only ever mentioned by name in regards to the prohibition of wearing it, many people miss its earlier appearances in the torah. It appears in Sefer Shemot, in 26:1, “As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them,” 26:31, “You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it,” 28:6, “They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.,” 28:15, “You shall make a breastpiece of decision/ worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen,” and 39:29, “and sashes of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery- as the Lord had commanded Moses,” among others. These verses all refer to the materials of the Mishkan and the garments of the Kohanim. All are composed of linen and colored wool[8]. Thus while shaatnez is forbidden to the average member of Bnei Yisrael, it is in fact mandatory for the Kohanim, and therefore it cannot be inherently bad. Furthermore, even for a normal citizen of Israel it is not entirely forbidden. Bamidbar 15:39, part of the original commandment regarding tzitzit, says that shaatnez is part of tzitzit. “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.” As with the colored wool of the Mishkan and the priestly garments, the colored string of the tzitzit is made of wool[9]. The inclusion of shaatnez, along with the otherwise priestly blue[10], is part of how tzitzit remind the wearer of their priestly purpose[11].

The commandment of shaatnez is not itself about two things that need to be kept separate, but about differentiating between two groups with different purposes, the Kohanim and the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Only in tzitzit, the mitzvah intended to remind Bnei Yisrael of their purpose as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” do they wear shaatnez. This is the integral message of the entire section, of Vayikra 18-21. The two ideas of this pericope, that of keeping the Laws/Rules of ‘א as opposed to the Laws of the Nations and that of Kedushah, are actually one. What makes Israel holy is that it is differentiated, and differentiates itself, from the other nations by its practices. However, much like shaatnez, it is not that either set of practices is necessarily good or bad. While the Torah clearly takes a negative stance towards those practices of the nations mentioned in Vayikra 18-21, what is important about them is not their moral quality, but that they are not the practices which ‘א has laid down for Israel to follow. Kedushah is about the fulfilment of purpose, on both the national and individual levels. It’s not just avoiding negative or foreign practices, but also the active fulfillment of the purpose and laws that ‘א laid down for Israel that makes Bnei Yisrael a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

[1] Found in his comment on Vayikra 19:2.

[2] Translation of Rashi from Chabad.org.

[3] The root שמר also appears in the word “משמרתי” in 18:30, but this is grammatically different from the other 7 uses.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The ideas in this paragraph are owed to Jacob Milgrom in his article, “Law, Narrative, and the Exegesis of Leviticus 19”.

[6] B. Sanh. 60a; Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Bekhor Shor.

[7] Mikra KiPeshuto, A.B. Ehrlich.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 4b, Yoma 71b.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Shemot 28:31 and 39:22, in contrast to Bamidbar 15:39.

[11] Shemot 19:6.

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban


There is often a great deal of opposition to the more peshat-oriented approach to understanding the text of the Torah taken by many modern readers of Tanakh. However, there are many mainstream, Orthodox, sources, especially from the Rishonim, that support such an approach. Many such critiques tend to come along with astonishment that such a reader might disagree with Rashi, and so a comment of Ramban on Bereishit 8:4 deserves particular attention. In a few short lines he critiques many fundamental issues with much of the opposition to the peshat approach, as a brief dissection and analysis will show.


The Text:


כתב רש”י מכאן אתה למד שהיתה משוקעת במים י”א אמה כפי החשבון הכתוב בפירושיו והוא כן בבראשית רבה (לג ז) אבל כיון שרש”י מדקדק במקומות אחרי מדרשי ההגדות וטורח לבאר פשטי המקרא הרשה אותנו לעשות כן כי שבעים פנים לתורה ומדרשים רבים חלוקים בדברי החכמים


Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah. However, since Rashi is in some places critical [in his reading] of narrative midrashim, and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text, he permitted us to do so, for there are seventy facets to the Torah, and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.[1]


The Breakdown:


Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah (33:7).


That is the beginning of a long comment discussing the dating and chronicling of the flood, wherein Ramban takes a strong stance against the view of Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah (33:7). Before he does so, however, he gives four reasons why it is permitted for him to argue with Rashi and the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah. It is notable that while many of Ramban’s comments on the Torah take the form of arguments with Rashi, there are also many that argue with Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra spends much of his commentary arguing with midrashim, and thus Ramban’s sense of needing permission to argue with Rashi/midrashim is not a matter of lacking precedent in doing so. He must have faced active opposition to doing so even in his own day, and it would be to this opposition that the following comments were directed.


However, since Rashi is in some places critical of narrative midrashim,


This addresses a mistake of incredible importance in the popular understanding of Rashi. People tend to assume that “Rashi” and “Midrash” are synonymous terms. This is incorrect. While Rashi often used midrashim in his attempt to find peshat, he certainly did not always do so. A perfect example of this is his comment to Bereishit 12:5:


אשר עשו בחרן: שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום. ופשוטו של מקרא עבדים ושפחות שקנו להם, כמו (שם לא א) עשה את כל הכבוד הזה, (במדבר כד יח) וישראל עושה חיל, לשון קונה וכונס


that they had acquired in Haran:whom he had brought under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them as if they had made them (Gen. Rabbah 39:14). The simple meaning of the verse is: the slaves and maidservants that they had acquired for themselves, as in [the verse] (below 31:1): “He acquired (עָשָׂה) all this wealth” [an expression of acquisition]; (Num. 24:18): “and Israel acquires,” an expression of acquiring and gathering.


The pasuk, speaking about Avraham and Sarah’s journey from Haran, mentions the “nefesh asher asu”. Everyone knows the midrash that Rashi quotes, that this refers to the people they converted. However, Rashi follows the midrash by saying that the plain reading of the text is that it means slaves. One could debate what Rashi thinks about the historical reality of the departure from Haran, whether it is like peshat or like the midrash. What is clear is that Rashi felt this midrash was not the proper understanding of the text, and that he had no problem saying so.


and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text,


This brings up an interesting point. Rashi himself describes the goal of his commentary as a “peshat” understanding of the text, famously in his comments to Bereishit 3:8, “יש מדרשי אגדה רבים… ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא,” “There are many Aggadic midrashim… but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture,” and 3:24, “ומדרש אגדה יש, ואני איני בא אלא לפשוטו,” “There are Aggadic midrashim, but I have come only to interpret its simple meaning”. Based on this many have stated that when Rashi brings a midrash it is in fact peshat, and anyone who really looked into it would see this. The problem with that statement is that the quote from Bereishit 3:8 is truncated. The statement continues with a really important clause, “ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו,” “and such Aggadah that settles [the issues in] the words of the verses, each word in its proper way”. The problem with this phrase is that it could be an expansion of the previous clause, or a new statement.  If it is an expansion, then Rashi is saying that he brings midrashim that fit well with the text as part of his search for a peshat understanding, meaning he thinks the midrash is peshat. If it’s a new statement, then Rashi is saying that in addition to his goal of finding a peshat understanding of the text, he also has a goal of bringing midrashim that fit with the text, for whatever purpose. The exact nature and purpose of Rashi’s commentary therefore remains unclear.

What is clear is that Rashi is interested, to whatever degree, in finding the peshat reading of the Torah, and that when Rashi brings a midrash, it is a midrash that Rashi believes will resolve problems in the text itself. Therefore midrashim are not self-justifying. A midrash must adequately address the textual issues in order to be of relevance to understanding the text, like Ramban obviously thought it did by Bereishit 8:4, or Rashi by Bereishit 12:5. In such cases a more text-based approach is needed.


he permitted us to do so,


This is an important point. Ramban is stating that because Rashi did it, we can do it too. Neither Rashi nor Ramban thought of themselves as being part of an elite class of people qualified to analyze the biblical text. They likely saw themselves as part of a long chain of readers of the Torah, all of whom have read the biblical text with a critical eye, and then tried to solve the issues they found with various techniques, text-based and otherwise.


for there are seventy facets to the Torah,


This old Rabbinic idiom is meant to convey that a text can have meaning on many levels or to many people, without any single one being the “correct” meaning. Thus Ramban can have his understanding of the text and Rashi can have his,and each would say that the other is wrong, but that doesn’t make anybody a heretic or necessarily more correct.


and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.


Many argue that midrashim cannot be challenged on the grounds that the Sages were recording the words of traditions that had been passed down to them from Har Sinai, or that they had received through Ruach HaKodesh. The problem with either of these approaches is that it ignores the facts as they are. Any quick look at midrashim will reveal that they are not of one voice or opinion in most matters. This creates an issue with the supposedly divine origin of midrashim, as then either the tradition would have to be mistaken, significantly reducing its value anyway, or multiple views were all received through Ruach HaKodesh, in which case they are probably not meant to convey the literal understanding of the Torah.

A secondary issue this introduces is that midrashim cannot simply be transposed to the biblical text.[2] Midrashim were never meant to be a fleshed-out commentary on the text of the Torah. Thus there’s no uniform density of midrashic comments on the Torah. There are many pesukim with no midrashim on them at all, and many with a huge number of related midrashim. Anyone attempting to create an understanding of the Torah text based on midrashim would not only find large gaps in their commentary, but they would also be forced to pick between differing midrashim or midrashic opinions when commenting on a pasuk. A perfect example of this is Rashi’s comment on Shemot 13:19, on the phrase, “וחמשים”:

וחמשים: אין חמושים אלא מזויינים. לפי שהסיבן במדבר גרם להם שעלו חמושים, שאלו הסיבן דרך יישוב לא היו מחומשים להם כל מה שצריכין, אלא כאדם שעובר ממקום למקום ובדעתו לקנות שם מה שיצטרך, אבל כשהוא פורש למדבר צריך לזמן לו כל הצורך, ומקרא זה לא נכתב כי אם לשבר את האוזן, שלא תתמה במלחמת עמלק ובמלחמות סיחון ועוג ומדין, מהיכן היו להם כלי זיין שהכום ישראל בחרב. וכן הוא אומר (יהושע א יד) ואתם תעברו חמושים. וכן תרגם אונקלוס מזרזין, כמו (בראשית יד יד) וירק את חניכיו וזריז. דבר אחר חמושים אחד מחמשה יצאו, וארבעה חלקים מתו בשלשת ימי אפילה:


armed: חִמֻשִׁים [in this context] can only mean “armed.” Since He led them around in the desert [circuitously], He caused them to go up armed, for if He had led them around through civilization, they would not have [had to] provide for themselves with everything that they needed, but only [part,] like a person who travels from place to place and intends to purchase there whatever he will need. But if he travels a long distance into a desert, he must prepare all his necessities for himself. This verse was written only to clarify the matter, so you should not wonder where they got weapons in the war with Amalek and in the wars with Sihon and Og and Midian, for the Israelites smote them with the point of the sword. And similarly [Scripture] says: “and you shall cross over armed (חִמֻשִׁים)” (Josh. 1:14). And so too Onkelos rendered מְזָרְזִין just as he rendered: “and he armed (וְזָרֵיז) his trained men” (Gen. 14:14). Another interpretation: חִמֻשִׁים means “divided by five,” [meaning] that one out of five (חִמִֹשָה) [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [lit., parts of the people] died during the three days of darkness.


The first things that’s worth noting is that Rashi actually brings the peshat explanation, along with multiple justifications of it, before he brings the midrashic approach. More important, however, is the way in which he quotes the midrash. The midrash (Tanhuma Beshalah 1), working off the similarity between the Hebrew words for “five” and “armed”, suggests that Shemot 13:18 is really saying that only one out of every five members of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. Or rather, that is the midrash as portrayed in Rashi’s comment. The problem with this is that an examination of the midrash in question reveals that this is not all it says.


וחמושים עלו בני ישראל אחד מחמישה. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמישים. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמש מאות. רבי נהוראי אומר: העבודה, לא אחד מחמשת אלפים. ואימתי מתו בימי האפלה, שהיו קוברין ישראל מתיהן, ומצרים יושבין בחשך, ישראל הודו ושבחו על שלא ראו שונאיהם ושמחו בפורענותן:


And Bnei Yisrael went up “חמושים”, [this means only] one out of five [left Egypt]. Some say one out of fifty. And some say one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: By the [Temple] Service! Not [even] one in five thousand [went out]. And when did they [who did not go out] die? In the days of darkness, so that Yisrael buried their dead while the Egyptians sat in darkness, and Yisrael praised and gave thanks that their persecutors did not see and rejoice in their suffering.


Rashi quotes the first, and least extreme, of the four opinions in the midrash. He had to select the one that made the most sense to him. Any time anyone quotes a midrash they are not giving “the opinion of the midrash”, but their own opinion, selected from the plethora of midrashic opinions available. Thus when Rashi quotes a midrash it is no more or less his opinion than when he simply gives his own non-midrashic opinion.

It’s worth noting that in this comment, the Ramban in no way attempts to say that midrashim are illegitimate in their understandings of the Torah. Instead, he takes midrashim, and Rashi’s commentary as it is popularly thought of, and puts them on the same level as the text-based approach. The Ramban does quote midrashim in his commentary, when he finds them compelling, much as he doesn’t always argue with the midrashim that Rashi quotes, when he finds them compelling. Many midrashim are actually based on very close readings of the text. All that separates such midrashim from”peshat” is what methods of interpretation are used once the text has been read. Thus for everyone from Rashi to Ramban to modern Bible critics, midrashic opinions are totally valid, but only as long a they’re compelling, and not necessarily more than more text-based opinions.


[1] Translation of Ramban is from the author, as is the translation of the midrash. Translations of Rashi are from http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/The-Bible-with-Rashi.htm, with occasional modifications from the author for accuracy or clarity.

[2] The ideas of this paragraph are heavily based on severeal essays on “Omnisignificance” by R’ Yaakov Elman.

“Not For Your Sake But For The Sake of My Holy Name” – On Redemption, Ideal and Otherwise – Pesach 5774

לֹא לְמַעַנְכֶם אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי אִם לְשֵׁם קָדְשִׁי

Chapter 36 of Sefer Yehezkel is part of the third and final section of the book, the section dedicated to the Redemption of Bnei Yisrael from the Babylonian Exile. The chapter describes ‘א bringing the people back to the Land of Israel and settling them there. The first half of the chapter speaks about the people returning to the land, first for the sake of the Land, and then for the sake of ‘א. In the second half of the chapter, the prophet refers to Bnei Yisrael being given a new heart, a reference the earlier prophecies of Yehezkel 11 and 18 Therefore chapter 36 must be understood in the context of those prophecies. Additionally, the basic idea of the new heart image is that of undeserved redemption, meaning that Bnei Yisrael are redeemed despite not being deserving of redemption. As such, the image is based on and must be understood against the background of, the narratives of Chet Ha’Egel (Shemot 32), Chet Ha’Meraglim (Bamidbar 14), and Yericho (Yehoshua 7). Only then can the true meaning and value of Yehezkel 36 be understood.

First, a quick look at the second half of Yehezkel 36. Verse 16, “The word of the Lord came to me,[1]” starts a new prophecy, separate from the first half of the chapter. Verses 17-21 describe how Israel’s exile, a necessary response to it’s sins, had the unfortunate effect of “causing ‘א’s holy name to be profaned among the nations.” (36:21). Verses 22-28 describe how, in response, ‘א is going to bring Israel back to His land and cleanse them of their sinful nature. Finally, verses 29-38 describe how ‘א will cause the land to become rejuvenated and the cities of Israel to be built up.

A critical theme of the prophecy is the concept of ‘א replacing Israel’s heart (this idea has roots in Jeremiah 31 and 32, themselves based on themes from Sefer Devarim, but those passages are not necessary for the understanding of this prophecy). This idea itself, in this chapter, has two distinct parts, both found in verse 26: “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” These ideas, the “heart of flesh” replacing the “heart of stone” and the “new heart and new spirit”, are based on two different prophecies from Yehezkel 11 and 18.

Both Yehezkel 11 and 18 are part of the first third of Sefer Yehezkel, discussing how the wickedness of the people is going to cause the destruction of the Temple. Part of this is a series of prophecies enumerating the sins of the people in Jerusalem, as opposed to the people already in Exile. Yehezkel 11 is the end of a prophecy that starts in chapter 8, which states that the sinful nature of the residents of Jerusalem has caused their rejection, and how those already in Babylonia are now the favored people of ‘א. At the very end of this prophecy we find the motif of the “Heart of Flesh”, as well as something reminiscent of the “New Heart and New Spirit”.

17 Yet say: Thus said the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the Land of Israel. 18 And they shall return there, and do away with all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 I will give them one heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may follow My laws and faithfully observe My rules. Then they shall be My people and I will be their God. 21 But as for them whose heart is set upon their detestable things and their abominations, I will repay them for their conduct-declares the Lord God.

In place of the wicked residents of Jerusalem, ‘א will return the exiles to their land where they will follow His laws and once again be His faithful nation. However, the exiles do not seem to be given a choice in this move towards faithfulness. They are going to be faithful servants of ‘א, not because they want to, but because He is going to make them so.[2]

Yehezkel 18 presents a viewpoint radically different from that of chapter 11.[3] Like chapter 11, chapter 18 is essentially an argument for the idea that the wicked will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded.[4] Chapter 18 even takes the form of an actual dialogue between ‘א and the people. However, chapter 18 differs greatly from chapter 11 in its use of the “New Heart” theme.

29 Yet the House of Israel say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Are My ways unfair, O House of Israel? It is your ways that are unfair! 30 Be assured, O House of Israel, I will judge each one of you according to his ways-declares the Lord God. Repent and turn back from your transgressions; let them not be a stumbling block of guilt for you. 3l Cast away all the transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die, O House of Israel. 32 For it is not My desire that anyone shall die-declares the Lord God. Repent, therefore, and live!

As opposed to Chapter 11’s conception that, regardless of their evil ways, ‘א will redeem Israel and will simply cause them to be better in order to justify it, Chapter 18 insists that ‘א will punish the wicked and therefore Israel should be better, in which case they will be redeemed and rewarded. This change is clear from the difference in language between 11:19, “I will give them (וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם) one heart and put a new spirit,” and 18:31, “make for yourselves (וַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם) a new heart and a new spirit.” Whereas in chapter 11 the change is effected by ‘א, in chapter 18 Bnei Yisrael are called upon to change themselves. This prophecy casts Bnei Yisrael in an active role as opposed to the more passive role from chapter 18, and it makes their redemption anything but assured.

Chapters 11 and 18 depict two very different kinds of Redemption, one deserved and the other undeserved. The deciding vote between them is cast in chapter 36, and the winner is the undeserved redemption of chapter 11. This is clear first and foremost from the return of the Heart of Stone/Heart of Flesh motif in 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” This is the image from chapter 11, where the redemption of Bnei Yisrael is passive and undeserved. More importantly, undeserved redemption is a dominant theme in the prophecy of Yehezkel 36. Six verses explicitly reference the idea that ‘א will redeem Israel for His sake and not for theirs. Another five discuss how Bnei Yisrael will have to be cleansed by ‘א after their redemption. Having been given the option of being forcibly redeemed in chapter 11 and the option of earning their redemption in chapter 18, the option chosen in the end is that of chapter 11. The reason for this is presumably the one great event that occurs between chapters 18 and 36: the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash. Once the Destruction occurred, it was clear that the people were not going to earn their redemption. At that point, if redemption is going to occur it will have to be undeserved.

To properly understand the meaning of this undeserved redemption one must look at previous such occurrences of undeserved redemption, namely Chet Ha’Egel and Chet Ha’Meraglim. Chet Ha’Egel is a classic example of a transgression that is followed by repentance, where it is clear that the people were forgiven for what they had done. However, they almost didn’t survive long enough to be able to repent. In Shemot 32, ‘א nearly destroyed the people before Moshe could even tell them that they were doing something wrong.

9 The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.”11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. 12 Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. 13 Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” 14 And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.

In verse 10, Bnei Yisrael deserve destruction to such a degree that  ‘א seems almost excited to destroy them. Moshe needs to present Him with two arguments in order to save them. He first suggests (32:12) that if ‘א does not successfully bring Bnei Yisrael into the land then the other nations will assume ‘א  is weak. Second, Moshe invokes the covenant between ‘א and the Fathers of the Israelite nation. Somehow, between these two arguments ‘א appears to have been swayed by Moshe, and decides not to destroy the people. While only the first of these two reasons matches ‘א’s reasons for redeeming Bnei Yisrael in Yehezkel 36, both of them tell us that this salvation from the wrath of ‘א is completely undeserved by the people.

Chet Ha’Meraglim is one of the archetypal sins of Bnei Yisrael. More than even Chet Ha’Egel, it changes the path of the nation’s future by keeping them in the desert for an extra 38 years. In Bamidbar 14, Bnei Yisrael sinned by not only appointing spies to spy out the land of Israel but, more importantly, by being swayed by the negative report of the spies regarding the land.

11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? 12 I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!”13 But Moses said to the Lord, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, 14 they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land. Now they have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; that You, O Lord, appear in plain sight when Your cloud rests over them and when You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, 16 ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness. ’17 Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying 18 ‘The Lord! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.’ 19 Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” 20 And the Lord said, “I pardon, as you have asked. 21 Nevertheless, as I live and as the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world, 22 none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, 23 shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it.

Once again, Moshe proposes two reasons for ‘א not to wipe out Bnei Yisrael. Firstly, if ‘א doesn’t bring the people into the land, then He will appear to be weak. He then recited what has come to be known as ‘א’s “13 Attributes of Mercy,” essentially asking ‘א to spare the people because he is merciful, rather than because they really deserve to be spared.

Chet Ha’Egel and Chet Ha’Meraglim are the two classic examples of Bnei Yisrael being saved without being worthy of it, and what they really demonstrate is that undeserved salvation is just another term for a lack of destruction. It is not that Bnei Yisrael are saved so much as ‘א does not obliterate them. This can hardly be described as an ideal. This point excellently made by a final event in Tanakh where a leader argues for the salvation of Bnei Yisrael for the sake of ‘א’s name. The seventh chapter of Sefer Yehoshua begins with the sin of Achan at Yericho, followed by the destruction of Bnei Yisrael at Ai as a consequence. Yehoshua’s subsequent prayer and ‘א’s response are of particular relevance to the present discussion.[5]

6 Joshua thereupon rent his clothes. He and the elders of Israel lay until evening with their faces to the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord; and they strewed earth on their heads. 7 “Ah, Lord God!” cried Joshua. “Why did You lead this people across the Jordan only to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites, to be destroyed by them? If only we had been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan! 8 O Lord, what can I say after Israel has turned tail before its enemies? 9 When the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land hear of this, they will turn upon us and wipe out our very name from the earth. And what will You do about Your great name?” 10 But the Lord answered Joshua: “Arise! Why do you lie prostrate? 11 Israel has sinned! They have broken the covenant by which I bound them. They have taken of the proscribed and put it in their vessels; they have stolen; they have broken faith! 12 Therefore, the Israelites will not be able to hold their ground against their enemies; they will have to turn tail before their enemies, for they have become proscribed. I will not be with you any more unless you root out from among you what is proscribed. 13 Go and purify the people. Order them: Purify yourselves for tomorrow. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.

Certain that the people have earned destruction, Yehoshua pleads with ‘א to save them, saying that if Bnei Yisrael are destroyed by the nations of Canaan then ‘א’s name will be a mockery. As opposed to the previous examples, where ‘א then relents and agrees to save the people, ‘א responds to Yehoshua quite harshly, “Arise! Why do you lie prostrate? Israel has sinned!” ‘א tells Yehoshua that the people are suffering because of their transgression, and thus the answer is not to cry out to ‘א but rather to rectify the transgression. “Go and purify the people. Order them: Purify yourselves for tomorrow. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.” Given the choice between saving the people because they deserve it or saving the people for the sake of ‘א’s name, ‘א very clearly tells Yehoshua that the former is preferable.

The tension between Yehezkel 11 and 18, and the resolution of this tension in Yehezkel 36, must be understood against the background of these earlier narratives. The sanctity of ‘א’s name is obviously important enough to necessitate the undeserved redemption of Bnei Yisrael, whether from destruction of from exile. However, Bnei Yisrael earning their salvation is itself a value of great importance. Thus Yehezkel 11 does not present an ideal, but rather a yielding to necessity, a second-class salvation of Bnei Yisrael. Chapter 18 then presents the ideal. Bnei Yisrael are redeemed, thus ensuring the sanctity of ‘א’s name, and Bnei Yisrael also earn their redemption. Chapters 11 and 18 present two different possibilities, and when the possibility of chapter 11 is finally selected in chapter 36, this redemption comes with an asterisk. It’s not perfect. It’s salvation, but it comes at a cost. Between chapters 18 and 36, ‘א has to give up on the repentance of Bnei Yisrael. He has to destroy Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash, and when He redeems the exiles, it will not be because they deserve it, but rather only because to leave them floundering in exile would be a desecration of His holy name.

Yehezkel’s job as a prophet was to speak to a people in exile about why they were in exile, and about what they should be doing there. When it comes to redemption, he put before them two visions, one of worthiness and one unworthiness. This split is essentially the basis for Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s famous distinction between Fate and Destiny.[6] With these words Rav Soloveitchik delineated two very different approaches to the events of history and of everyday life. A person with a “Fate”-mentality wants to know why something happens to them. They are are very passive, and focused on the past. A person with a “Destiny”-mentality takes a very different approach. Instead of asking why this event happened, they ask what they are supposed to learn from this event, how it is supposed to affect their life. Their interest in the cause and reason of the event is not about the event itself, but only for the purpose of know what actions they should be taking in response. They are active and their thoughts are centered on the future. The two redemptions of Yehezkel 11 and 18 correspond to the Fate and Destiny mindsets, respectively. Undeserved redemption is a passive experience. It is what happens when Bnei Yisrael sit in exile and wonder why they have been exiled. The deserved redemption of chapter 18 is an active experience, one Bnei Yisrael have to bring about themselves. Yehezkel tells the exiles that they were sent to Babylonia for a reason, to stop being who they were in the land of Israel and to become better. If they become better, then they will be redeemed. Exile is not meant to be a passive experience. It’s something that happens because Bnei Yisrael create a stagnant and festering society. Then Bnei Yisrael are exiled in order to stop being the nation they were in the land and to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” as they are meant to be. The Jewish People in exile will be redeemed, for the sake of ‘א’s name or for the purpose of His historical agenda, but the ideal is for Bnei Yisrael to deserve it.


[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible, except where emendations were necessary for clarity.

[2] There is a possible vagueness in the phrase “them whose heart is set upon their detestable things” in that it could refer to either the residents of Jerusalem or perhaps members of the Exile that resist the ‘א’s transformation of their state of mind. Based on the rest of the vision it likely refers to the former, but the possibility of the latter can’t be ignored.

[3] This is is true if it is understood as an expansion of 11:21, based on the second reading, or as a stand-alone prophecy.

[4] This is one of the main goals of Yehezkel as a prophet, in contrast to the author of Sefer Melakhim, as per countless shiurim from Rabbis Menachem Leibtag and Hayyim Angel, available on www.YUtorah.org.

[5] The inclusion of this narrative is thanks to Yonatan Mandelbaum, a friend and scholar.

[6] Kol Dodi Dofek

Parashat Aharei Mot 5774 – “And you shall bring them to ‘א, to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting”

וֶהֱבִיאֻם לַיהוָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

Sefer Vayikra’s section on life outside the Mishkan begins in Chapter seventeen, with the discussion of the Mishkan and the world outside, through the laws of “שחוטי חוץ,” animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan. There are several different laws involved, which vary depending on the type of animal slaughtered. The first law involves the prohibition of slaughtering sacrificial animals outside the Mishkan. Interestingly, the Torah here spends several pesukim explaining the reason behind this prohibition, which is important because two entirely different reasons are given. Verse six says the purpose is that a private slaughtering strays from the regular service done by the priest, “that the priest may dash the blood against the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”[1] Verse seven says the purpose is “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray.” These varying purposes for this one mitzvah become the basis for a split in Jewish Thought that reverberates throughout the generations.

Verse seven suggests that the purpose of this mitzvah is to wean Bnei Yisrael off of the idolatrous worship they were accustomed to performing in Egypt. From here the theory was born that the purpose of all of the mitzvot is to wean Bnei Yisrael off Idolatry. Not only did Rambam include all of Korbanot, but also many other ritualistic mitzvot, under the rubric of “weaning off Idolatry.”

Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. Comp.” Unto thee it was showed that thou mightest know that the Lord is God (Dent. iv. 35):” Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord is God” (ibid. v. 39). The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service; comp.” and to serve him with all your heart” (ibid. xi. 13):” and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Exod. xxiii. 25);” and ye shall serve him” (Dent. xiii. 5). But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner (M”N 3:32).

R’ Yishmael even said that the underlying principle of all of the Mitzvot was the fight against Idolatry. This idea is part of a larger trend in Jewish Thought regarding the purpose of the mitzvot, namely the idea that the mitzvot are intended for the improvement of Man. This is an idea utilized not only by Rambam but also his son R’ Avraham, Ritva, Rosh, and many others besides. Based on this, the mitzvot are conceived of as being intended to improve man’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual nature.

By contrast, verse six seems to indicate that the mitzvot are for ‘א’s benefit, rather than man’s: “As a pleasing odor to the Lord.” While there’s some debate as to how and why it is that ‘א derives pleasure from Korbanot, and what exactly is the meaning of this “pleasing odor”, it’s clear that the fulfillment of this mitzvah somehow pleases ‘א. Ramban, in his comment to Vayikra 1:9, takes a strong stance against the position of Rambam, while suggesting in Bereishit 8:21 that the idea of the “pleasing odor” is a “great secret” and is seemingly able to change ‘א’s mind [2]. This approach maintains that mitzvot are not for the purposes of man or society, but for the purposes of ‘א, performing mystical functions necessary to the very existence of the universe[3].

Many have also taken a view of the mitzvot that synthesizes and combines these two approaches. Ramchal, in 138 Gates of Wisdom, says that the purpose of the mitzvot is the mystical mechanics they enact in reality. However, he says, ‘א could essentially have picked any set of actions and assigned them to the mechanics the mitzvot enact. The fact that it was these mitzvot that we have today, a set of mitzvot for which man can find logical reasons and through which can reach improvement, is a great kindness from ‘א to man. Heschel, seeing the relationship between man and ‘א as the essential purpose of mitzvot, believes that mitzvot put man and ‘א in relation to each other, something that benefits both parties. These and other thinkers have eschewed the idea that just one of these approaches is acceptable in favor of a broader approach.

This synthetic approach actually flows very naturally from the text of the Torah. Vayikra seems to recognize both reasons as completely valid reasons for the mitzvah. From these two reasons a debate is born that stretches throughout the entire history of Jewish Thought, but it’s important to realize that the two go back to one source. Both are written in the same document. Two ideas; one Torah. The Torah was never meant to be monolithic. Since it’s very origin, it has not only recognized but endorsed complexity in thought. Some mitzvot fall into the “Improvement of Man” category and some into “For the Sake of ‘א.” Some are too complex to simply be assigned to either category. In creating this complexity, the Torah would seem to have two goals. The first is that each individual person should strive for some of this complexity in their thought. Not everyone will automatically connect to every facet of the Torah, but people should struggle to approach at least a little of that which seems foreign to them. Far more importantly, however, is what this complexity could mean on a national scale. If Jewish Thought has never been monolithic, then we ought not ask the Jewish People to be a monolith. When people disagree in their approach to Judaism, more often than not they’re each just manifesting a different part of what the Torah asks of the Jewish People. Not only should we not be bothered by the different approaches in Judaism today, we should celebrate them, as this complexity in the Jewish People mirrors and makes manifest a very real complexity in the thought of the Torah.

[1]  Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] See also Ramban’s comment on Bereishit 6:6.

[3] Nefesh HaChayyim, First Gate.

Parashat Metsora 5774 – Of Priests and Purification

וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן וְטָהֵר

Parashat Metsora describes the process of purification for a person or house affected by Tsara’at. This process reveals something incredible about the nature of Tsara’at and what it means for someone affected by it. Vayikra 14 describes the purification process:

12 The priest shall take one of the male lambs and offer it with the log of oil as a guilt offering, and he shall elevate them as an elevation offering before the Lord. 13 The lamb shall be slaughtered at the spot in the sacred area where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered! For the guilt offering, like the sin offering, goes to the priest; it is most holy. 14 The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 15 The priest shall then take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. 16 And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. 17 Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot-over the blood of the guilt offering. 18 The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one being cleansed. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him before the Lord. 19 The priest shall then offer the sin offering and make expiation for the one being cleansed of his uncleanness. Last, the burnt offering shall be slaughtered, 20 and the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meal offering on the altar, and the priest shall make expiation for him. Then he shall be clean. [1]

When taken on its own, this process might seem strange to the modern mind. However, in comparison to another text from earlier in Vayikra, it reveals something incredible.

The above passage is incredibly similar to the process of the inauguration of the Kohanim, found in Vayikra 9:

22 He brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, 23 and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 24 Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar… 30 And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments. Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments.

The two passages are strikingly alike, revealing something very important about the nature of tsara’at.

A person affected by tsara’at is taamei and is therefore excluded from the community. As a person who is taamei, they are excluded from the realm of Kedushah, from the Mishkan and the regular service of ‘א.  In their exclusion from the community their impurity is contained and kept from spreading, but the person is also isolated and cut off. They have thus been excluded from ‘א’s statement, “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. They, temporarily, are neither a part of the People nor the Priests. The everyday lives of Bnei Yisrael revolve around two poles: ‘א and His People. Social Sins are also sins against ‘א. And part of becoming tahor and rejoining the people is returning to the service of ‘א.

[1] translations from the Jewish Study Bible.