Parashat Naso – The Nesi’im and the Nation

זֹאת חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ בְּיוֹם הִמָּשַׁח אֹתוֹ מֵאֵת נְשִׂיאֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

Parashat Naso, one of the largest parshiyot in the Torah, is largely composed of Bamidbar 7, some 89 verses long. Chapter 7 consists almost entirely of 6 verses repeated 12 times with very little variation, namely the sacrifices of the leaders of the Tribes. This long passage is capped off by a verse that seems unwarranted: “And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the cover that was upon the Aron of the testimony, from between the two keruvim; and He spoke to him,” (Bamidbar 7:89). Initialy, this verse appears to be entirely unrelated to the preceding 88 verses, which deal with the inaugural sacrifices of the Mishkan. However, this seeming discrepancy is mitigated when viewed in the larger context of the Inauguration of the Mishkan.

The Inauguration of the Mishkan is described in two other places in the Torah: Shemot 40:17-38 and Vayikra chapter 9. The passage in Shemot describes Moshe constructing the Mishkan, and then ‘א’s Presence and the associated Cloud filling it. Vayikra 9 depicts Aharon fulfilling the first services of the Mishkan, followed by a divine fire consuming the sacrifices on the altar. In both cases, an intensive, detailed, procedure is followed by the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence in the Mishkan. If we look at the passage in Bamidbar with this structure in mind, the similarity is striking. In place of building the Mishkan or initiating the sacrifices we have the Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, bringing donations. Additionally,  instead of ‘א manifesting His Presence in the Cloud or the Fire, the manifestation is in the revelation in the Aron, the heart of the Mishkan. Bamidbar 7 is one of three passages describing the Inauguration of the Mishkan, and as such, verse 89 can be explained similarly, as part of the necessary structure of the Inauguration passage.

What is important about this passage, is not how it is similar to the others, but how it differs from them. There are three main differences in all of the passages:

  1. The action performed in step one of the inauguration process
  2. The leader performing the action
  3. The resulting manifestation of ‘א’s Presence

In Shemot, the leader is Moshe, and the action performed is the physical construction of the Mishkan, which the Cloud then fills. Moshe is the leader appointed to take the nation out of Egypt and to the land of Israel. He is responsible for the physical guidance of the people, and so he builds the physical structure of the Mishkan. ‘א then manifests His Presence in the Cloud, which guides Bnei Yisrael through the Wilderness.

In Vayikra, the focus is on the priestly activities of the Mishkan. Aharon, in charge of the sacrifices and other rituals of the Mishkan, performs the inaugural sacrificial service, and ‘א manifests His Presence in the fire that consumes the sacrifices.

In Bamidbar, the tribal leaders bring animals and donations for the Mishkan, and the manifestation is in the revelation to Moshe from above the Aron.

While the passage in Shemot emphasizes Moshe’s leadership, and the passage in Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan, the inauguration in Bamidbar emphasizes the Nation of Israel.

Bamidbar is a book about the birth and formation of the Nation of Israel. Thus it makes sense that the depiction of the Inauguration in the Mishkan would focus on the leaders of the Nation. The Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, are the permanent leadership of Bnei Yisrael. They are the leaders that takes over when the nation settles in the land of Israel. More than either Aharon or Moshe, they are the leaders of the nation. That’s why in Sefer Bamidbar, where the focus is on the nation, they are the leaders in the Inauguration.

What is less obvious is why the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence here is through the revelation to Moshe above the Aron. This becomes clearer after a survey of several of the the narratives of Sefer Bamidbar. In chapter 11, the people complain and 70 elders are made prophets. In chapter 12, Aharon and Miriam are punished for their statements regarding Moshe. The narrative of the spies and the nation’s punishment fills Bamidbar 13 & 14. Korah’s rebellion is recorded in Bamibar 16 & 17. These, and the rest of the narratives of Bamidbar, are unified through consistant conversation of Moshe and ‘א in the Mishkan. Sefer Bamidbar demonstrates the amazing fact that Moshe could go to the Mishkan and ‘א would respond to him. Sefer Bamidbar is the story of birth of the Nation of Israel, and with the birth comes birth-pangs. Bnei Yisrael get off to a rough start, with a lot of unforeseen difficulties. Through all of these ups and downs, ‘א is there to guide Bnei Yisrael, and to answer Moshe when he needs help. This ensures the growth of the nation, and establishes the relationship of ‘א to Bnei Yisrael for all time. He is actively involved in our growth and development. More importantly, he responds to our development. He did not simply set us on a path and let us walk down it on our own. ‘א is with us every step of the way.

Yom Yerushalayim 5774 – The Place that Dovid had Designated: Unity and Responsibility

אֲשֶׁר הֵכִין בִּמְקוֹם דָּוִיד

 

The picture of Jerusalem in Tanakh is a complex one. Beyond the fact that its name is not mentioned until Sefer Yehoshua (in the Torah it’s just called “the place that ‘א will choose”[1]), it is also the city whose destruction is probably most often prophesied. And yet it is ‘א’s City, which Yeshayahu depicts as the center of a new world-order based on the knowledge of ‘א. This complexity becomes clearer when one takes a look at the origins of the city as depicted in Tanakh. The conquest of Jerusalem is described multiple times, in the books of Yehoshua, Shoftim, and Shmuel. A closer analysis of these descriptions, and the interplay between them, demonstrates that Jerusalem’s complexity is a feature which goes back to its very origin.

The 15th chapter of Sefer Yehoshua depicts the conquest of the borders and cities of the territory given to the tribe of Yehudah, with a brief interlude detailing the experiences of Caleb Ben Yephuneh and Otniel Ben Knaz (Yehoshua 15:13-19). Verse 63, the last line in the chapter, describes Yehuda’s attempt to conquer Jesrusalem. “ And as for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Yehudah could not drive them out; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Yehudah in Jerusalem until this day.”[2] This is not a promising start to the city, but its real importance comes in its contrast to the description found in the first chapter of Sefer Shoftim.

The first chapter of Sefer Shoftim both agrees and disagrees with Yehoshua 15.[3] Verse 8 describes the Tribe of Yehuda conquering the city. “And the children of Yehudah fought against Jerusalem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and set the city on fire.” This fits with the verse from Yehoshua 15 only in the broadest sense. It completely lacks the sense of difficulty in conquering the city expressed in Sefer Yehoshua. However, Verse 21 reads almost exactly the same as Yehoshua 15:63, with the notable exception of Yehudah being replaced by Binyamin. “And the children of Binyamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Binyamin in Jerusalem until this day.” This is an outright contradiction to both the verse in Yehoshua 15 and verse 8 in this very same chapter of Shoftim, which describe Yehudah, not Binyamin, conquering Jerusalem.

There are various ways to resolve this contradiction. Professor Elitsur, in the Da’at Mikra Commentary on Sefer Shoftim, suggests that some of the verses refer to the city of Jerusalem itself, while some of them refer only to the area surrounding the city. According to this conception, Yehoshua 15:63 is referring to Yehudah conquering the land around the city, while Shoftim 1:21 refers to Binyamin conquering the city itself. Shoftim 1:5 speaks of the city itself, but not of Yehuda conquering it, only burning it. In the Daat Mikra Commentary to Sefer Shemuel, Professor Kiel suggests that the area of Jerusalem can be divided into two parts: the City of David, down in the valley, and the area of the Old City and Har Tsion, on the hill above. Thus he says that Binyamin conquered the City of David and Yehudah conquered the Old City and Har Tsion. These solutions each have their own pros and cons, but they do resolve the contradiction. They do not, however, answer the question of why it was written in this manner.

No matter which method one uses for resolving the contradiction, the glaring question remains: Why was the conquering of Jerusalem written in such a confusing manner? Either of the above solutions could have been written much more plainly, without any of the confusion and contradiction. Yehoshua 15:63 and Shoftim 1:21 use exactly the same words, but with a different name for the conquering tribe. However, this parallel is so exact as to imply conscious intent, which warrants assuming a greater degree of intent. Once the paralleling in the verses is recognized, there is a greater intent understood, that of specifically comlpicating the story of Jerusalem. Jerusalem does not belong to any one tribe, but to all of them. While it cannot physically be in the land of all of the tribes at once, it is right on the border of the lands of Yehudah and Binyamin. Therefore, its conquest is one which cannot be attributed to any one tribe.

It is important to note that at the time of Sefer Shoftim Jerusalem was not yet the official capital of Israel. Then it was just a city with a complex ownership situation. It didn’t become the capital of Israel until Dovid took it in Shemuel Bet 5:4-10.

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah. And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke unto David, saying: ‘Unless you take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither’; thinking: ‘David cannot come in hither.’ Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the city of David. And David said on that day: ‘Whoever smites the Jebusites, and gets up to the water channel, and [takes away] the lame and the blind, that are hateful of David–.’ Therefore they say: ‘There are the blind and the lame; he cannot come into the house.’ And David dwelt in the stronghold, and called it the city of David. And David built round about from Millo and inward. And David waxed greater and greater; for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.

 

This depiction, mirrored in Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-9, is most notable for its total lack of a mention of ‘א. When it comes to choosing and taking the city that will be the seat of Israel’s Kingship, theoretically until the end of time, the choice is not made by ‘א, but by David. Similarly, when the site of the Bet HaMikdash is chosen (Shemuel Bet 24:17-25), it is chosen by David, not ‘א, as is made clear by Divrei HaYamim Bet 3:1. “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in mount Moriah, where [the Lord] appeared to his father David; At the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” Once again, the choice is made not by ‘א, but by David.

Jerusalem has two different aspects: its function in terms of the nation and its function in terms of ‘א, and neither of which is as we would expect. While we normally expect a city to fall under one domain, Jerusalem falls under two, and is further considered to not really be their property anyway, rather being a place for all the tribes. It’s not so much a city as a national center. Meanwhile, one would expect the site of national encounter with ‘א to be at a place of His choosing, not some place chosen by Man. And yet, David’s choice designated not just the city but also the very place where ‘א would choose to make his name dwell. Both of these factors lead directly to Jerusalem as a city that could be the center of the universal service of ‘א, and also has its destruction prophesied with terrifying regularity. The city is founded on the unity of diverse groups of people and it is either good or bad based on their choices. Jerusalem represents all the good that Bnei Yisrael can possibly achieve when we are united, but also all the bad we can fall into when we are not. It is on us, not ‘א, to make sure that the city and the nation become all that they can be, and that they lead the rest of the world in living up to all the potential that ‘א has given us.

“And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For Law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Yeshayahu 2:3)

[1] Devarim 12:5, 11, 18, 21, 26, and others.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with some emendations for clarity.

[3] The discussion of the interplay of the verses form Shoftim 1 and Yehoshua 15 and the conclusion drawn from it are based on a class from Rav Amnon Bazak’s year-long “Studies in Sefer Shotfim” (HEB) course, given at Mikhlelet Herzog.

Parashat Bamidbar – Census and Separation

וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת

 

Sefer Bamidbar begins with a listing of all of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael and their count, followed immediately by the formation of the camp, which includes all of the counts all over again. In both these lists the absence of the Tribe of Levi is glaring. The reason for this is simple: the Levi’im do not go to war, so they get only a quick mention in each list. Thus, in these first two lists of Bnei Yisrael, the Tribe of Levi gets sidelined. After the listing of the war-camps however, the Torah returns to the Tribe of Levi in order to describe all of its families, along with their jobs and counts. In all of these lists, one element is strikingly out of place. The beginning of the listing of the Levi’im starts out with the Kohanim, Aharon and his sons, and it not only mentions Nadav and Avihu, but also their crime.

And Nadav and Avihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aaron their father (Bamidbar 3:4).[1]

In a list of all the Levi’im, it makes sense to include Nadav and Avihu, and to say that they died with no children to succeed them, but it is odd to include a mention of the crime for which they died. It seems a little out of place, and it certainly would not be missed if it was absent. However, looking at this line in the broader context of the first few chapters of Sefer Bamidar points out a theme not only in these chapters, but in Sefer Bamidbar as a whole.

The pasuk says that Nadav and Avihu died because they “offered strange fire before the Lord.” The word used here for “strange” is “זרה”. This word recalls to the reader the other times this word is used in this context:

“And when the tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (Bamidbar 1:51).

“And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, that they may keep their priesthood; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (3:10).

“And those that were to pitch [their tents] before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, were Moses, and Aaron and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary, even the charge for the children of Israel; and the common man (זר) that drew near was to be put to death.” (3:38).

Beyond the connection in terms of word-choice, the parallel here is obvious. Just as Nadav and Avihu died because they came improperly before ‘א, so too if a commoner comes improperly before ‘א they shall die.

To the modern ear, the distinction between the Levi’im and the common Israelites seems at best arbitrary, at worst immoral. The idea of castes and classes seems like a problem in need of solving, the kind of thing civilized man left in the long-forgotten past. However, much of Sefer Bamidbar is a discussion of these kinds of issues. Is it really true that all men are created equal? And if that is true, does that mean that all people are meant to do exactly the same thing, or do some people perhaps have different jobs? What is the relationship between the function and value of an individual person or group? These are the kind of questions tackled by the various narratives of Sefer Bamidbar.

Perhaps the best example of this can be found by continuing to trace the appearances of the word “זר” to it’s appearances in Bamidbar 17 & 18. These chapters come on the heels of the rebellion of Korah, a Levi who decided that the nation shouldn’t be ruled by any one or two individuals. Korah’s perspective strikes a chord with modern democratic sensibilities, especially in his bold statement, “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them,” (16:3). However, he and his followers are rejected, and Moshe berates them for thinking that importance is determined by hierarchy (16:9). In the wake of this rebellion, not only are the laws of the Kohanim reiterated and the prohibition for a common Israelite to come improperly before ‘א reinforced (18:4, 7), but they take the consecration fire-pans of Korah’s rebellion and make them into a covering for the alter “to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before the LORD; that he fare not as Korah, and as his company; as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses,” (17:5). In the wake of the rebellion of Korah, not only do the laws differentiating between the various groups of Israelites need to be reiterated, the nation needs a permanent memorial to remind them of this eternally.

A more in depth analysis of each of the issues mentioned above is beyond the scope of this paper, but perhaps a simple explanation of the issue of the classes can be found in looking back to the sin of Nadav and Avihu, not in it’s brief mention in Bamidbar, but in its original version in Sefer Vayikra. Vayikra 10:1 reads, “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.” While this is very similar to the quotation from Bamidbar 3:4, it adds one important detail: that ‘א had not commanded their offering. With this in mind, it is clear that what makes something “זר” is not some innate quality, but the word of ‘א. The differentiations between the Israelites, the Levi’im, and the Kohanim are not a function of innate differences between the groups, but rather of ‘א’s decision. And as can be seen from Moshe’s response to Korah (16:9), this differentiation is a matter of function only. It doesn’t make any one group better or more important than any other, and thinking that it does is a rejection of ‘א’s distinctions. It is this purpose, not an external signifier like serving in the Mishkan, that makes a person or group important. Perhaps this is why Sefer Bamidbar starts not with the census of the Levi’im, but with that of the rest of Bnei Yisrael. The census counted each individual person and family and tribe, for each of them had its own unique purpose, and was just as important as every other.[2] This is what is highlighted by the mentioning of the sin of Nadav and Avihu in Bamidbar 3:4, that the issue of the זר who approaches the Mishkan isn’t classes or castes, it’s about the unique purpose ‘א designates for each and every individual.

[1] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with minor emendations for clarity.

[2] Ramban, Bamidbar 1:45

Parashat Behukotai – Holiness Inside and Out – Redux

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מִמֶּנּוּ לַי-הוָה יִהְיֶה-קֹּדֶשׁ

 

The large part of Parashat Behukotai is taken up by Vayikra 26, known as the תוכחה, the Rebuke. It is essentially a description of the consequences for following or disobeying the Law of ‘א, and as such is a fitting end for Sefer Vayikra. It even ends with a verse which clearly summarizes a much larger section, “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the LORD made between Him and the children of Israel in mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Vayikra 27:46). This organizes Vayikra into a collection of laws and a motivational speech about the importance of following them[1], a wondrous and logical construction, which is absolutely ruined when you get to the end of chapter 26 and discover chapter 27. Vayikra 27 is known as Parashat Ha’Arakhin, “the passage of values”, and contains laws regarding personal vows and consecrations to the Mishkan/Mikdash. While a very important set of laws, this section completely destroys the previously beautiful structure created by ending the book with chapter 26. However, a closer analysis of the chapter and its role in Sefer Vayikra will reveal that it replaces the original plan with an altogether more important structure, closing the book and highlighting its most important values.[2]

Parashat Ha’Arakhin is one of two bookends to Sefer Vayikra.[3] It is matched, on several counts, by the first few chapters at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra that discuss the animals brought to the Mishkan as Korbanot. The sections share a basic structure. The early chapters first discuss the Voluntary korbanot, the Olah and Shlamim, followed by the Obligatory korbanot, the Hatat and Asham. This same pattern of Voluntary-Obligatory is mimicked in parashat ha’arakhin, which starts off by discussing the monetary values of people, animals, and land that someone could voluntarily donate to the Mishkan, and then discusses first-born animals and produce-tithes that a person is obligated to give. More important than the structural similarity is the thematic one. Both parshiot involve people bringing things (animals, produce, money, etc.) to the Mishkan. Sefer Vayikra opens and closes with people taking what is theirs and giving it to ‘א. This focus on the Mishkan defines Vayikra, with it’s lengthy descriptions of the laws of Korbanot, Purity/Impurity, etc. However, as chapter 27 reminds us, it is not the only important theme of Vayikra.

Vayikra 27 also closes a smaller section at the end of the book, beginning with chapter 25. Chapter 25 deals with issues of God’s ownership, both of the land and the nation of Israel, and the legal manifestations of that.[4] This does not in and of itself seem to be similar to chapter 27, which deals with evaluation and donations. However, reading the two chapters side by side, one is struck by the numerous repetitions of conjugations of the word “גאל” (redeem, redemption, etc.) in both chapters. With 18 appearances in chapter 25 and 10 in chapter 27, Redemption is not only a common theme to both chapters, but also a fairly dominant theme in each chapter individually.[5] However, the word “redemption” here is not intended in the manner people usually use it; it has no spiritual, national, or historical, connotations. Rather it refers to the return of a person or their property to their own, personal, ownership.[6] In chapter 25 it refers to the redemption of a person, or their property, that was sold to avoid bankruptcy. In chapter 27 it refers to persons or properties that are dedicated to the Mishkan, either by default or intentionally, and their redemption from that state. This connection, between redemption in Vayikra 25 and redemption in Vayikra 27 affects how we view chapter 27. Redemption in chapter 25 is obviously positive, but in chapter 27 it’s not clear. One could suggest that redeeming items intended for the Mishkan is something only meant to be done when absolutely necessary, permitted but far from positive. The similarities to chapter 25 (Particularly 27:16-24, dealing with redeeming land in relation to the Yovel) indicate that the redemption of chapter 27 is the same as the redemption in chapter 25. Redeeming things from the Mishkan must then be seen as similarly positive to redeeming the destitute from slavery. While this seems perhaps a little strange, with all the focus on the Mishkan in Sefer Vayikra, and the simple fact that the Mishkan is where Bnei Yisrael could most easily feel ‘א’s presence, it makes perfect sense when one takes into account the second half of Sefer Vayikra, which deals almost exclusively with life outside the Mishkan.

Parashat Ha’Arakhin was chosen to finish off Sefer Vayikra because it encompasses what are perhaps the two most important values of the sefer: the Mishkan and life outside of it.[2] Bnei Yisrael brought dedications and Korbanot to the Mishkan the same way we dedicate our lives to ‘א. We are pulled towards the presence of ‘א, and in embracing this, in taking the rest of our lives and dedicating them to this, we are wrapped up in His majesty. But the is life outside the Mishkan. The Torah lays down laws for a holy society, but a society needs people to do the work and maintain it (Bereishit 2:15). The Holy Society idea is in direct tension with the Mishkan. Instead of bringing ourselves to ‘א, building a holy society requires bringing ‘א to the rest of our lives. That’s why the Torah lays down laws for agriculture and property ownership, because then the observance of those laws is innately godly.[7] This tension does not have a resolution, it’s something we have to live and struggle with on daily basis. How much of our day is just for ‘א? How much is for ‘א’s world? There’s no set method for determining this, but that doesn’t excuse us from the question. Each day we must ask ourselves anew, and each day we must do our best dedicate ourselves to ‘א while still dedication ourselves to building His world.

 

[1] It’s worth noting that their is a large debate among the commentators regarding which laws the Rebuke is giving consequences for.

[2] For more on this, see my discussion of it here: https://levimorrow.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/parashat-vayikra-the-mishkan-the-people-and-the-land-holiness-inside-and-out/.

[3] Ideas found in this paragraph are from Jacob Milgrom’s Commentary to Vayikra, Yale Anchor Bible Series, Vole. 3 Ch. 27, Comment B; and form R’ Menachem Leibtag’s commentson Parashat Behukotai, found on www.tanach.org.

[4] For more on that, see my discussion here: https://levimorrow.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/parashat-behar-the-property-law-of-man-and-god/.

[5] This paragraph is also largely based on Jacob Milgrom, Op cit.

[6] This has a lot in common with a more national-historical form of redemption, but it’s not quite the same thing.

[7] This is the greatness of the rabbinic requirement of דינא דמלכותא דינא, “the law of the land is law” (תלמוד בבלי, מסכת בבא בתרא, דף נ”ד, עמוד ב’. תלמוד בבלי, מסכת גיטין, דף י’, עמוד ב’.). It give halakhic weight to any civil law, and essentially makes it a mitzvah to eva good citizen.

Parashat Vayikra 5774 – The Mishkan, the People, and the Land – Holiness, Inside and Out

וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-הוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Sefer Vayikra[1] is certainly the most law-oriented book of the Torah. While most of the books of the Torah include a significant narrative section, Vayikra has only a few scattered narratives, all directly connected to the laws of Vayikra. Adding to the uniqueness of this characteristic, most of the laws are very ritually oriented. While this section does include plenty of ethical laws, the vast majority are concerned with rituals and worship. This peculiarity led Julius Wellhausen, the founder of modern biblical criticism, to say that Vayikra is actually a very late addition to Tanakh, a ritualistic corruption of earlier prophetic ideals. More recent scholars have concluded that this was largely a manifestation of Wellhausen’s anti-Semitic beliefs, an intended denigration of what he considered to be the most Jewish part of the Torah. In this one facet, he may have been right. Vayikra is ostensibly the most Jewish book of the Torah. Much of the laws and rites we follow on a daily basis have their roots in Sefer Vayikra. Moreover, the entirety of Sefer Vayikra, down to its very structure, expresses characteristically Jewish ideas.

Sefer Vayikra can be very neatly split into two parts, Chapters 1-16 and Chapter 17-27. These two sections each deal with their own unique subject matter, and where there is overlap, the overlapping law or idea is discussed in two very different ways. The topic of the first section is fairly easy to determine, namely the Mishkan, the Korbanot, and the people responsible for both. This also includes the various persons that are not allowed to enter the Mishkan due to temporary “impurity”, and the ways those people acquire that status. The second section,  however, is a little more complex.

The second half of Vayikra jumps rapidly from topic to topic[2]. It starts off with the laws regarding animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan, moving quickly to forbidden sexual relations and the requirement not to live like the nations that previously inhabited the Land of Israel. It also discusses the laws of the Shabbat and the Holidays as well as the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Surprisingly, peppered throughout the expected ritual laws we find an unexpected amount of moral laws. Finally, near the end of the Sefer we find the punishments awaiting those who fail to live up to the laws of the Torah.

While the laws of the first half of  Sefer Vayikra focus on the Mishkan. the proper way to act therein, and who may enter and who may not, the second half focuses on the life of Bnei Yisrael outside the Mishkan. It covers most, if not all, aspects of life. It deals with the sanctity of the People, the Land, and the special designated times of the People in the Land. Quite beautifully, the switchover from the first section to the second (in chapters 17 and 18) centers on A. The laws of slaughter outside the Mishkan, and B. The command to live differently than the nations that once lived in the Land of Israel. Slaughter outside the Mishkan means taking something that normally occurs inside the Mishkan and moving it outside. That external movement brings us outside the Mishkan and into the land, upon which Bnei Yisrael must behave according to certain moral laws.

These two sections are not simply two sets of laws put side by side, however. On the surface one might think that they both ended up in one book simply by virtue of each being too small to merit its own book. But in fact the first half of Sefer Vayikra very delicately and deliberately sets up from the second half. There are many linguistic and literary connections between the two sections, but the most significant by far are the usages of the words “מעל”, “טמא”, “טהור”, and “נדה” (in their various conjugations). All of these words possess great significance in both sections of Vayikra, but their meanings are not the same. While there are many words simply repeated in the two sections, these words are repeated with entirely different meanings. While in the first section they have an explicitly ritual connotation, in the second they assume very moralistic intentions[3]. “Impure” becomes “Morally Corrupt”,  and “Purification” becomes “Forgiveness”. Ritualistic terminology becomes Moralistic analogy. The language of the Mishkan becomes the language of the Nation in the Land.

The function of the second half of Sefer Vayikra is to take the first half and apply it to the rest of the life of Bnei Yisrael. It essentially analogizes the concepts of the Mishkan to the daily life of the people. The first half of the sefer describes the Mishkan as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the people who go there. The second half of Vayikra describes the People and the Land as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the actions of the people on an individual and collective basis. Just as certain actions mean that a person cannot share ‘א’s space in the Mishkan, so too certain actions mean that ‘א cannot live in the daily life of the people[4]. The laws of Sefer Vayikra are not simply complex ritual laws. They are a description of what it means to try to live in ‘א’s world and to have Him live in yours.

[1] This essay draws heavily from ‘Introduction to Sefer Vayikra’, a lecture by Rav Menachem Leibtag easily locatable on www.yutorah.org, and the Jacob Milgrom’s Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series.

[2] Note: This paragraph is just a quick summary. There are plenty of other laws in this section, but these are some of the big ones.

[3] This division isn’t necessarily 100%, rather it is general trend.

[4] It’s worth noting that of its 51 appearances in the sefer, 49 of the uses of the phrases “אני י-הוה” are in the second half of Vayikra.

Parashat Behar – The Property Law of Man and God

לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ

 

Parashat Behar discusses a variety of laws all based upon the idea of ‘א’s property rights. The laws of Shemittah assume that ‘א owns the land and thus Bnei Yisrael must treat it in accordence with His wishes (Vayikra 25:23). Similarly, the laws of the redemption of properties and the return of ancestral lands in the Yovel is due to ‘א being the one true owner of the land, and thus has the unique ability to apportion it as He sees necessary (Ibid.). Even the laws of the slaves are included, as ‘א has taken Israel to be in His service, and thus they cannot serve others, at least not as formal slaves (25:42). This in itself, the idea that ‘א owns things and that people therefore cannot treat those things however they wish, is of great importance. But it is the exception to the rule of property return that teaches us perhaps the most important idea of all.

The exception to the return of property in the Yovel is any property inside a walled city. This property can be redeemed within a year of its sale, but after that it belongs fully to its new owner (25:29-30). If the law of the return of property is based on the idea that the land belongs to   ‘א, then it seems a little incongruent that there would be an exception to this rule. It seems to imply that urban properties don’t get returned in the Yovel because urban land doesn’t necessarily belong to ‘א but rather whomever legally acquires it. Due to its location, what would otherwise be the property of ‘א is instead the property of Man.

An argument against this might be that ‘א as Creator of the World owns everything in it, and thus there must be some other explanation for this exception. However, ‘א’s conditional ownership is clear from the contrast between the laws of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves in Vayikra 25:39-46.

39 And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant. 40 As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee. 41 Then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42 For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen. 43 Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. 44 And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou mayest have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. 46 And ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may ye take your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigour.

Israel belongs to ‘א as a result of His taking Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. By contrast the nations who live around Israel are not ‘א’s, and can thus be taken as slaves. Clearly not everything belongs to ‘א as a result of being created by Him.

While it is clear that urban property has left the realm of ‘א’s property and moved over into that of man, it is far from clear whether or not this is a good thing. On the whole, cities in Tanakh are not depicted very positively. The first city ever mentioned is Bavel, in the Tower of Bavel narrative in Bereishit 11. That city is so negative that ‘א has to personally intervene and destroy it. The next big city mentioned is Sodom, which is also destroyed by ‘א. It continues like that, with really the only positive city being the priestly city of Nov until the founding of Jerusalem by King David. The prophet Tsephaniah in particular takes a harsh view of city life, considering it to be innately evil and corrupt. He predicts the total destruction of the cities of Israel, utilizing imagery from the Flood and Tower of Babel narratives in order to make it clear that the destruction is due to the absolute corruption of the cities. In their place he suggests that society move back toward the more pastoral, shepherding lifestyle of the forefathers. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggested that this tension between cities and shepherds is a theme throughout the entirety of the Tanakh, going all the way back to the first conflict in the Torah. While Abel was a Shepherd, Cain was a farmer, whose descendants would go on to develop much of civilization (Bereishit 4:21-22). When the Jews go down to Egypt, the fact that they are shepherds is appalling to the Egyptians, who maintaine an agricultural society (Bereishit 46:31-47:4). The one real exception might be Yeshayahu’s prophecies on Jerusalem. Much like Tsephaniah, Yeshayahu uses imagery from the Tower of Bavel to demonstrate the total corruption of the city. However, instead of predicting the city’s destruction, Yeshayahu declares that the city must become better. It seems that in Yeshayahu’s view, urban life is not innately corrupt, and could in fact be ideal if the people acted properly. Thus the portrayal of cities in Tanakh is definitely not particularly positive, but also doesn’t have to be negative.

Just as the Tanakh’s view of cities seems more complex than simply ‘good or bad’, we can’t really determine if the nature of urban land as the property of Man is positive or negative. Certainly, it could potentially be either, which highlights the incredible fact of the exception itself. The Torah describes the laws of Shemittah, Yovel, Redeeming the Land, and the Return of the the Land, as all being based on ‘א’s ownership of the land. And then it says that by building walls and cities, the land becomes the property of Man. Bnei Yisrael are apparently able, in this case, to overwrite ‘א’s ownership with their own. This is an example of a much larger theme in Tanakh and Judaism, that of the importance and value of human initiative. Human initiative is real and has meaning, despite the presence of an all-powerful god. In Sefer Shoftim, the measure of a good leader is how little he requires ‘א’s involvement in saving the people. When ‘א helped the people conquer the land, the Kedushah was only temporary, but when the people returned of their own volition in the period of Bayit Sheni, the Kedushah was permanent. The ability for Bnei Yisrael to make property their own through urbanization is an incredible demonstration of the power of human actions. However, the Tanakh makes it clear that this has the potential to be either incredibly good or incredibly bad, and it might even be easier for it to go bad. If humans have such great power, then incumbent upon them is also great responsibility. We are meant to build a perfect world, and we have the power to do so. This by definition means we also have the power to ruin the world we’ve been given to work with. This is the great challenge of humanity. We’ve been given great ability and the material to utalize. What we do next is up to us.

 

[1] Translations from Mechon-Mamre.org

[2] One could still argue that ‘א, as Creator, owns everything, but one still has to explain the distinctions between the the rural and urban properties and the Israelite and non-Israelite slaves as per Vayikra 25 as being somehow different levels of ownership, and so nothing has really been accomplished in terms of ‘א’s ownership.

[3] ספר שמואל א’, פרק כ”ב, פסוק י”ט

[4] Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-5

[5] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, “Zephania’s use of the Genesis Narratives”, available on yutorah.org

[6] As a massively agricultural society, Egypt was actually the first civilization to develop leavened bread, which may explain the prohibition of Chametz on PEsach. For more information, see this link: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/04/why-do-we-eat-matzah-on-pesach.html

[7] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Op cit.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 82b.

[9] Voltaire, “Œuvres de Voltaire, Volume 48.” Lefèvre, 1832; Uncle Ben, Amazing Fantasy #15.

Yom HaAtsma’ut 5774

Yom HaAtsma’ut commemorates the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948. It marks a moment in history, a turning point at which everything changed. The world was not the same place on the 15th of May, 1948, as it had been at the start of the 14th. In remembering this, in marking this day, we are presented with a challenge from both ‘א and the Nation of Israel, asking us if we are living up to our potential.

History is guided by ‘א’s hand. From the first spark of Creation through the Messianic Era, history moves according to the Will of ‘א. Great events like the Exodus from Egypt and the founding of the State of Israel are how ‘א reveals His will. Moments like the Revelation at Sinai are calls for a response from mankind. How will we respond to the will of ‘א?

The problem with this concept is that it is difficult to ever say that we know why ‘א did something. He controls history, but we do not know the specific reason why any one event happened. Thinking that we do is the kind of thing that leads to giving reasons for the Holocaust and other tragedies, which is an irresponsible and unthinkable thing to do. Unfortunately, once we say that we cannot give a reason for tragedies, we can’t honestly give a reason for any historical event. Once upon a time, Bnei Yisrael had prophets, messengers of ‘א, to tell us what ‘א intended by any event, what He wanted from us at any given nexus in history. Nowadays, all we have is the words of the prophets recorded in Tanakh and the words of HaZaL to tell us what we ought to be doing and what our goals ought to be. But in spite of this difficulty, Yom HaAtsma’ut still stands as ‘א’s challenge to us, asking us if now, in the new era of the State of Israel, we will live up to who we are supposed to be.

We face a similar challenge, perhaps even stronger, from the Nation of Israel, specifically from our fallen soldiers. Yom HaAtsma’ut follows on the heels of Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. In cities across Israel there are transitional ceremonies that start as mournful remembrances and end as joyful celebrations. This contrast colors the experience of Yom HaAtsma’ut. The happiness of the day is diluted, tinged with a strong sense of the sacrifice required to make that joy possible.

The juxtaposition of these two days creates a strong sense of  purpose for the deaths we remember on Yom HaZikaron. Far be it for us to say why they died, but we do know that their deaths helped create the State of Israel that we know and love today. However, this sense of purpose should color not just the past, but also the future; not just how we see their deaths, but also how we see ourselves, our lives, our goals. The purpose that their holy blood has served, the reason they gave their lives, cannot be ignored.

We don’t get to live our lives passively. We have to have the future in mind. This is true on the both the religious and moral levels. We have to respond to ‘א’s challenge, the challenge of history. We need to find our place in ‘א’s plan, to live up to his Torah. And we need to make sure we honor those who gave their lives for the State of Israel. This doesn’t mean that everyone should move to Israel tomorrow. Making hasty and reckless decisions honors neither the holy dead nor ‘א. But we can not pretend that the State of Israel is inconsequential or that those who died for it never existed. We have to feel the challenge. And we have to respond to it.