Parashat Tzav 5774 – Holiness and Distinction

אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו

Parashat Tzav can be split neatly into two parts. Chapters 6 and 7 of Sefer Vayikra are essentially a restatement of the first five chapters, but from a different perspective and a different goal. Where 1-5 consists of instructions to Bnei Yisrael[1] about what korbanot they can bring with what animals, 6 & 7 are directed towards Aharon and his sons, instructing them regarding the procedures involved in the korbanot. Chapter 8 switches to the topic of the Inauguration of the Mishkan and its vessels and Aharon and his sons. These chapters demonstrate quite clearly why Sefer Vayikra is called “Torat Kohanim”, “Law of the Priests”. Chapter 8 is particularly important in terms of Vayikra as a whole, as the majority of laws in Vayikra relate directly to the Mishkan and the Kohanim, both of which are inaugurated in Chapter 8. However, the significance of this chapter runs much deeper than just the practical. This concept of the inauguration of the Kohanim, indeed of “inauguration” in general, is an idea that runs deep throughout Sefer Vayikra, as well as the Torah as a whole.

Separating from certain items or activities is one of the main themes of Sefer Vayikra[2]. Vayikra 11 deals extensively with the various animals that Bnei Yisrael may or may not consume. The end of this chapter, namely verses 44-47, explains why this is so:

44 For I the LoRD am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. 45 For I the LoRD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. 46 These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, 47 for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.[3]

Here we not only have the word “distinguish” mentioned above, it also occurs in context of the word “sanctify”. This will become more important as other texts are examined. Vayikra 20 deals with the practices of the nations that previously lived in the Land of Israel, with the focus primarily on inappropriate sexual relations. The main body of this discussion is opened with a focus on holiness in verses 7 and 8: “7 You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I the LORD am your God. 8 You shall faithfully observe My laws: I the LoRD make you holy.” The discussion ends not only with a reminder of the importance of sanctification, but also that of distinguishing:

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.

Once again Sanctification and Dividing show up as one, not only to show why certain animals are permitted and some are not, but also to give the explicit purpose for which Bnei Yisrael has been “set aside”: to be designated as ‘א’s. This combination of the sanctification and designation of Bnei Yisrael is parallel to the Inauguration and Sanctification of Aharon and his sons in Vayikra 8, which is marked by the refrain “וַיְקַדֵּשׁ”, denoting ‘א sanctifying Aharon and his sons,  their garments, and their place of work. Thus Bnei Yisrael’s relationship to their context, the Nations of the World, is parallel to the relationship of the Kohanim to their context, Bnei Yisrael.

This idea of designation goes far beyond the scope of Bnei Yisrael and its connection to sanctification. The idea that the world has purpose, is designated for something, is inextricably bound with the idea that the world was created, and thus it is not surprising to find a strong presence of the themes dividing and sanctification throughout the Creation narrative. Bereishit 1:3 says that ‘א “separated the light from the darkness.” In 1:6-7 א’ created the Rekiah to divide between the “upper” and “lower” waters. 1:14 & 18 detail the creation of the cosmos in order to divide between day and night. Beyond this, the theme pervades Creation in more subtle ways. Verses 9 and 10 depict the same process of distinguishing, this time in regards to the Land and the Water, without any use of those same terms. Additionally, another term is present throughout the story that carries this message. The phrase “לְמִינָהּ” is one that dominates the second half of the Creation story. More or less as soon as animals enter the picture, it becomes important to the Torah to mention that each worked according to its species and not otherwise. Thus the strict division of the species was created and maintained. Notably, Creation is capped off by a “וַיְקַדֵּשׁ” by Shabbat (2:3), as is the creation of the Mishkan in Vayikra 8.

Having taken a look at some of the appearances of this concept, we must re-examine what this “inauguration” means. To inaugurate a person or item means to bestow upon the person or item the status of a formal office or function. In doing so, one separates the inaugurated from whatever group they originally belonged to, designating them as different by virtue of their different purpose. This idea is portrayed in several different ways throughout the Torah. The verb “משח”, meaning to anoint or inaugurate, is used frequently. But just as frequently, as we have seen, the roots “קדש”, “sanctify”, and “בדל”, “divide” or “distinguish”, appear with nearly the same meaning, that of setting aside for a specific purpose[4]. The goal here then is not the separation and dividing itself, but rather the dedication toward a purpose that it achieves.

In Shemot 19:5-6 ‘א says, “5 Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, 6 but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.[5]’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” One could not ask for a more explicit statement of both designation and sanctification, let alone one where the priesthood is mentioned simultaneously. If it was not clear before this, it is obvious from that line that anything said on this topic applies equally to the Kohanim and to all of Bnei Yisrael. Thus it is unquestionably clear that being set aside for ‘א is not a matter of blessing so much as a burden[6]. In Parashat Tzav, that means that the Kohanim are not better than the rest of Bnei Yisrael, they just have a harder job. Similarly, being ‘א’s nation is not about privilege, about being better than the rest of the world, but rather it is about serving the rest of the world in its relationship with ‘א.

[1] It is notable that in most ancient cultures, Near-Eastern and otherwise, laws were generally not available to the public, let alone shared with them directly and intentionally. By contrast, Bnei Yisrael were greatly empowered with regards to their laws and rituals. For more information, see Exploring Exodus, by Nahum Sarna, and Jacob Milgrom’s commentary to Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series, Introduction.

[2] Robert Alter, as quoted in Rabbi Shai Held’s devar torah to Parashat Vayikra, available here:

[3] Translations from The Jewish Study Bible.

[4] This is an understanding of קדושה compliant with both the understanding of Rashi and that of Ramban, as found in their comments to Vayikra 19:2.

[5] Jacob Milgrom, ibid.,  points out that the Mitzvah of tzitzit is thus exactly parallel to this verse from Shemot. Tzitzit’s stated purpose of remembering the Mitzvot will lead to being a Holy Nation, and The Royal/Priestly blue will remind Bnei Yisrael that they are a Kingdom of Priests.

[6] It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word generally used in contexts like these is “עול”, which means “yolk”, rather than  “משא”, meaning “burden”.

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

“The Tsimtsum” is the term used to refer to a mystical description of Creation that originates in the teachings of the great Kabbalist R’ Yitzchak Luria, better known as the Arizal. The Arizal described creation[1] as beginning with ‘א’s Infinite Light. Then, ‘א contracted (“Contraction” being a translation of “Tsimtsum”) His light, creating an empty space at the center. It was in this empty space that ‘א made His Creation. The Arizal’s depiction of Creation continues with the creation of a variety of mystical entities, but none of them come close to the greatness of the concept of the Tsimtsum. Before we can discuss that, however, we need to take a look at an essential split in the ways this idea has been understood historically.

Within a century, it began to be hotly debated whether the Arizal had meant this story literally or allegorically, as recorded in the book “Shomer Emunim” (שומר אמונים) by Rav Yosef Irgas (רב יוסף אירגס). This split gave birth to entirely opposite understandings of the meaning of the Tsimtsum. The allegorical approach understood the Tsimtsum as parable meant to teach a particular theological concept, or as a description of human perception rather than divine reality. The upshot of this approach is that the Tsimtsum didn’t literally happen; there is no space empty of ‘א. The literal approach understands the Arizal to have been teaching a historical truth. ‘א literally created a space where He wasn’t in order to enable the creation of things other than ‘א in that space. This approach has been less the less popular of the two, perhaps because of how incredibly bold it is. It talks about ‘א in very real, very human, terms, and makes very absolute statements of the nature of ‘א’s existence. But it is that sense of absolute reality that makes the depiction so compelling, because it flows from an understanding that the Tsimtsum had to be, that Creation could not have happened otherwise, rather than simply being a man-made parable. As this essay is on the theological value of the concept of the Tsimtsum, we will be taking an allegorical approach, but it’s important to keep the sense of existential need for the Tsimtsum in mind.

The basic idea underlying the Tsimtsum is the incompatibility of ‘א and his creation on an existential level. ‘א’s existence and the existence of that which is not ‘א cannot coexist. Therefore before there can be creation there must be a space that is empty of ‘א. This is most strongly felt in the literal understanding of the Tsimtsum, but the ideas and teachings of the allegorical approach flow from this incompatibility as well.

This sense of incompatibility also lies behind the early midrashic concept that the Torah speaks in the human language (דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם). This concept is a limiting force when it comes to interpreting the text of the Torah, stating that the words of the Torah convey meaning the same way that people do and that we should understand the Torah the same way we understand human speech. This idea is built on the sense that divine revelation in the abstract would convey so very much more than people are capable of understanding, that divine communication and human cognition are essentially incompatible. Thus, in order to enable people to understand the Torah ‘א had to limit his revelation therein to within the bounds of human language.

Taking this approach forward to our time, it becomes a valuable model for understanding many contemporary theological issues. Perhaps the most pressing issue for people living in the aftermath of the 20th century is the question of ‘א’s presence in history. The first point to bring up in that discussion is always that human initiative and free will cannot exist in the presence of divine preordination and determination. There is an inverse correlation between the degree to which a historical event can be attributed to man and the degree to which it can be attributed to ‘א. This has actually been used as a method of explaining ‘א’s apparent absence from some of the historical events of the last century, with thinkers like Eliezer Berkovitz and, to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing that human initiative is important enough to ‘א that contracts his historical presence instead of intervening in even the most tragic events. Even if we are unwilling to make such a morally and theologically bold statement, this tension is important for the questions we ask and the way we frame them.

This model is also valuable for discussing the nature of shabbat and the prohibition of melakhah, creative work. If we look at the original biblical shabbat, at the end of the first depiction of creation in Bereisht 2:1-3, it is clear that shabbat concludes ‘א’s “week” of Creation. However, if we look at it from the perspective of man, created on day 6, shabbat would function roughly as the beginning of the “week”. After the “first shabbat” of Bereishit 2:1-3, man is placed into the garden “to work it and to keep it,” thus beginning the creative work of man. Shabbat thus functions as a hinge joining the past week with that to come, marking both the end of ‘א’s work and the beginning of man’s. On shabbat we acknowledge that all the work of the past week should in truth be attributed to ‘א, that none of it should be chalked up to human initiative. As with the work of history, the work of the week can be that of man or that of ‘א, but not both simultaneously. Thus as we begin each week’s work we experience ‘א’s Tsimtsum as he makes room for man to create, and as we enter shabbat man performs a Tsimtsum where he recognizes than none of his work can really be attribute to the strength of his own hand. Tsimtsum is thus not only valuable in terms of the way it can frame the divine, but also in the way it helps us understand the human.

As noted above, some Tannaim saw the text of the Torah as something highly restrained by the limits of human cognition. However, it has long been acknowledged that the content of the Torah, the mitsvot[2] and the narratives[3], should also be understood this way. As humans we are all historically situated. We live in a certain place at a certain time, and that affects the way we understand things. The same is true of the ancient Israelites. Thus the Torah that was given to Bnei Yisrael in the desert had to be fit to the understandings of their specific historical situation, or they would not have been able to grasp it. Therefore ‘א contracted his revelation into the forms relevant to Bnei Yisrael historical situation, resulting in a very human text conveying divine laws and ideas.

Beyond the Torah of Moshe there is a whole realm of prophecy, all of which is subject to this conception of the Tsimtsum. It will be instructive to look at three understandings of the nature of Prophecy. Rambam understood prophecy to be essentially a human faculty. Through the perfection of both their intellect and imagination, a person could connect to the active intellect and draw divine knowledge from there (depending on whether you give more weight to the Mishneh Torah or the Moreh Nevukhim[4] ‘א may or may not be involved in occasionally blocking this connection). In this understanding ‘א remains in His infinite state, and the human individual develops themselves away from their limited human state until they can grasp a much more divine truth. However even this truth is limited by virtue of the prophet’s humanity. At the opposite end of the extreme is the way some people understand the biblical phenomenon of Prophecy, where the prophet essentially becomes an empty vessel through which ‘א speaks. In this understanding the prophets personality and consciousness are entirely overridden in moments of revelation, though they return afterward. In this understanding, the human mind cannot exist in the presence of divine communication and so it disappears during the process of revelation. In the middle is what seems to be more or less the proper understanding of biblical prophecy, where the prophet is a conscious partner in the revelation. The prophets receive revelation and communicate it to the people, a process that inevitably involves the personalization of the message. The same way that no two people explain the same topic in the same way, similarly no two prophets conveyed their prophecies in the same style[5]. In this understanding ‘א has to not only minimize his revelation to within the limits of human cognition in general, but also ‘א allows the prophet to express it within his own specific style. The common thread in all of these understandings is that Humanity and Divinity cannot share the same space, and the more of one involved in prophecy, the less of the other.

Taking a step back from the nature of prophecy to the very fact of its existence as a phenomenon, this too is a function of Tsimtsum. Prophecy involves the relationship between the Infinite (‘א) and the all too finite (the prophet), thus requiring the infinite to work on a finite level. Choosing a nation requires a similar focusing on the finite, as does stepping into history and working within a specific historical framework. That ‘א chose to work within human history means limiting Himself to the tools of human history and experience. All of Jewish history, from Yetsiat Mitsrayim to the Days of Mashiach, and all of the laws and prophecies that shape that history, constitute ‘א opting out of his infinitude in order to work in the finite sphere.


It’s also worth discussing this idea of the Tsimtsum in regards to the recently passed holiday of Purim[1]. The textual basis of the holiday of Purim is from Megillat Esther, a text that is unique in the canon of Tanakh in that it does not once mention ‘א, in any context. It represents the entire story as on of human intrigue and historical causation. The mitsvot of the holiday also markedly focused on the human instead of on the divine. Other than the commemorative reading of Megillat Esther, the mitsvot focus on feasting and building interpersonal relationships. The holiday would seem almost to be a celebration of humanness. However, a look at the Jewish tradition indicates that it is not generally seen this way. Instead, the story of Megillat Esther is seen as an indication of the way ‘א’s hand guides human history. In this respect it is particularly instructive to look at Mordechai’s “pep talk” to Esther in the 4th chapter of Megillat Esther.

Then Mordechai told them to return [with his] answer to Esther: “Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if you keep silent at this time at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows, it may be that for this very moment you came to royalty?”

Mordechai’s speech is intended to motivate Esther to save the Jews. This requires a sense that human initiative is what drives historical events, and thus Esther can change the course of history through her actions. However the rest of the speech continues to say that if Esther doesn’t act, “then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place,” implying that human initiative doesn’t really have any historical impact. Similarly, the speech ends by Mordechai suggesting that the reason Esther came to her position of power was so that she could save the Jews, despite the fact that Mordechai knows that the reason Esther came to power was that the king was looking for a new queen and he took a liking to Esther (Esther 2:1-17). Mordechai is saying that there is a greater will guiding historical events, one that supersedes all human initiative, in the middle of a speech about the importance of the actions of one human, namely Esther. This paradoxical approach is how Jews have often understood the entirety of Megillat Esther. The text itself depicts an entirely human story, but as part of a religious scripture it’s been understood that the divine will guides all of the events of the text. Purim as a holiday is about rejecting the Tsimtsum paradigm. Instead of seeing the human and the divine as incompatible, they are seen to be seen as mutually reinforcing. Esther is supposed to act because the divine plan brought her to the palace in order to act, but if she doesn’t then the divine plan will function anyway. Similarly the mitsvot of purim reinforce human social bonds and worldly experience, but they remain divine commands and ways of fulfilling the divine will. Thus Purim is about looking at the human and seeing the divine, without ever forgetting the fact that you’re looking at something truly human.

[1] דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי’ אויר ריקני וחלל, אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א”ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי’ ראש ולא בחי’ סוף אלא הכל היה אור א’ פשוט שוה בהשוואה א’, והוא הנק’ אור אין סוף. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו (אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא’ בחקירה הראשונה) והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א”ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה.

~עץ חיים-שער א ענף ב

[2] See Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.

[3] See the Hertz Chumash, essays on Parashat Noah,

[4] This is borne out in both the Kapah and Ibn Tibbon translations.

[5] “אֵין שְׁנֵי נְבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים בְּסִגְנוֹן אֶחָד.” ~סנהדרין פ”ט

[6] This article was originally meant to be published before Purim.

Parashat Pekudei 5774 – Closing the Book on the Stories of Creation

וַתֵּכֶל כָּל עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן

Parashat Pekudei finishes the second half of Sefer Shemot, rounding out five parashot describing the Command and Construction of the Mishkan, with Chet Ha’Egel in the middle. The Mishkan is actually completed a few different times, all of which point in a very peculiar direction. First the construction of all the pieces of the Mishkan is completed in Shemot 39:32, where it says, “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting,”[1] then in 40:33 Moshe finishes setting up the Mishkan, “And he set up the enclosure around the Tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen for the gate of the enclosure. When Moses had finished the work,” and a few others besides. The sense of completion these verses evoke is almost as strong as those used in describing Creation. These verses in particular are paralleled to Bereishit 2:1, “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array,” and 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done,” respectively. The parallels however go far beyond that. Both Creation and the Mishkan have a strong connection to Shabbat: on the original Shabbat ‘א rested from his work of Creation, and now we celebrate shabbat specifically by resting from the work of the Mishkan. Creation happens in seven days and the commands for the Mishkan were given in seven distinct speeches, each introduced by “The LORD spoke to Moses” or “And the LORD said to Moses”(Shemot 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). There’s one connection, however, that is particularly fascinating.

As part of the continuing theme of 7’s, both the first chapter of Bereishit and the last chapter of Shemot each have their own unique key-phrase, each occurring seven times. In Bereishit 1 it is “And God saw that this was good[2],”[3] while in Shemot 40 it is “just as the LORD had commanded Moses.” These two lines aren’t just numerically parallel, they also have one very important idea in common, namely, the express fulfillment of ‘א’s Will. In this manner Sefer Shemot closes the same way Sefer Bereishit opened. This creates a sort of bookend set up to the first two books of the torah. The Ba’al HaTurim highlights this in a comment to Shemot 39:32, saying that the word “וַתֵּכֶל,” appearing nowhere else in the Torah, is an indication that this moment is really the completion of not just the Mishkan, but of all of Creation. But what is this story that is contained here, stretching ninety chapters and two out of five books? What is begun in the first chapter of Bereishit that isn’t finished until now?

The answer is of course found in the common thread between the bookends, that of a creation that goes exactly according to the Will of ‘א. The order of Creation goes exactly according to ‘א’s Will, but in Sefer Bereishit it is one of the last things that does. Creation is capped by the creation of Man and the commandment to man not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which Man promptly disobeys, and history ensues. The course of History, since that moment, has been a battle of wills between Man[4] and ‘א. The Tanakh depicts the great drama of humanity as a back-and-forth of being at some times more and other times less in line with the Will of ‘א, beginning with Adam HaRishon. This doesn’t stop at the end of Sefer Shemot. One could argue that throughout Tanakh it becomes more and more extreme. But Shemot ends with the creation of the Mishkan, and that is incredibly significant.

Adam was given ‘א’s Will in an instant and failed just as fast. After that ‘א revealed his Will at various times and places to various individuals. It was not until Bnei Yisrael ratified the Covenant in Shemot 24, that any significant portion of Mankind affirmed the command of ‘א’s Will. In building the Mishkan a further step was taken. The Mishkan houses the Aron, which allows for continuous revelation. Bnei Yisrael do not just receive ‘א’s Will once, they receive it over and over again. But moreover, Man was created to work[5], to perform “עבודה,” specifically to “tend the Garden of Eden.”[6]After his failure, Adam is cursed that now he will have to toil for his own sake (Bereishit 3:17-19). It’s not until the creation of the Mishkan that Man is able to perform “עבודה,” that for which he was created, as an expression of the Will of ‘א. History can be divided into two sections: Adam to the Aron,  and everything from then on. It is a story that starts on a high note, but plunges rapidly. But that’s okay, because that downfall is what gives birth to the story. It’s not a story of the perfect fulfillment of ‘א’s Will. It’s a story about the struggle of Man, of the tension between Man’s Will and ‘א’s, and the wondrous mystery of their wills being in line with each other. The perfect beginning is shattered in an instant. The Aron means that every day Bnei Yisrael get to hear ‘א’s will anew. And the Avodah of the Mishkan means that every day Bnei Yisrael get a fresh chance to use their will express the Will of ‘א inherent in Creation.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] The version in 1:31 is slightly different, but close enough.

[3] This actually has huge theological implications, especially in comparison to other cosmological and cosmogonical beliefs popular three thousand years ago.

[4] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, the chapter entitled “History”, the subsection called “The Pantheism of History”.

[5] Bereishit 2:5, 15.

[6] Ibid.

Parashat Vayak’hel 5774 – The Golden Calf, Disobedience, and Taamei HaMitsvot

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם

While its ultimate purpose is something of a debate, it is inarguable that the Mishkan served as a Tikkun (Repair) for the Chet HaEgel. The Torah goes out of its way to highlight the parallels between the Mishkan and the Chet. The word “ויקהל” shows up exactly three times in the Torah: by Chet HaEgel, by the Rebellion of Korach[1], and by the donation of materials to the Mishkan, in the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel. The gathering of gold for the Egel is paralleled by the gathering of gold for the Mishkan, which is specifically depicted in the text as a holy act[2]. Aharon conceived of ‘א descending on the Egel in much the same manner that ‘א descended on the Keruvim in the Kodesh HaKodeshim[3]. But beyond these obvious points, there’s one very simple way in which the Mishkan atones for the Egel, so obvious most people skip right over it. There’s one phrase that shows up more often by the Mishkan, its rituals, and its sancta, than anywhere in the Torah: “אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה,” “that the LORD has commanded you.”[4] With the Mishkan, there is a specific emphasis on following the command of ‘א. The Egel, in contrast, was a direct violation of a command. In fact, it was the first violation of a specific commandment, the prohibition of Idolatry, and thus not only was it the first instance of post-sinaitic Idolatry in Israel, it is also the first post-Revelation disobedience.

Chet HaEgel occupies a huge place in the history of Jewish Thought. This significance is not surprising in light of this being the first sin after Sinai. One midrash relates that it caused a cessation of Revelation stretching from Chet HaEgel until the time of Nechemia after the return to Israel from the Babylonian Exile[5]. This is based on the parallel verses of Shemot 32:8, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” and Nechemia 9:18, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Chet HaEgel is referred to as “a great sin[6],” a phrase that in Ancient Near Eastern legal texts specifically refers to Adultery[7]. The idea of Idolatry as Adultery in the relationship between ‘א and Bnei Yisrael is perhaps the main theme of Sefer Hoshea[8]. Idolatry is considered to be the basic idea underwriting all of Torah and Mitzvot[9]. All of these ideas are manifestations of the unity of Idolatry and the Rejection of ‘א’s Torah, an idea that started with Chet HaEgel and spread forward throughout the Jewish Tradition.

Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin was one of the deepest and most prolific writers of the Hasidic movement. The number of books written about him is only slightly larger than the number of books he himself wrote, perhaps the most famous of which is an amazing book called Tsidkat HaTsadik. In the second chapter of that work, as well as in many places throughout his thought, he says that the entirety of the Torah can be found in the first two commandments of the Decalogue, the Command to Believe in ‘א and the Prohibition against Worshiping other gods. This builds on the common midrashic idea that all 613 commandments are included in the 10 Commandments[10], adding that the final eight of these can be broken down into the first two. Thus he says that all positive commandments are included in Belief in ‘א and all negative commandments are found in the Rejection of Idolatry. While at first confounding, a little bit of thought reveals the brilliant simplicity in this idea. Any time a person fulfills an action that ‘א  has commanded, that is an obvious affirmation of ‘א, His Existence, and His Kingship. Any rejection of ‘א’s command demonstrates the opposite. If one truly believed in ‘א, how could they violate His Command? Thus Rav Tzadok’s approach to mitzvot is an obvious development of the unity of Idolatry and Disobedience, categorizing all positive commandments as affirmations of Belief in ‘א and all negative commandments as Rejections of Idolatry.

Perhaps the most extreme development of this idea is in the thought of the late Israeli thinker Professor Yeshayahu Leibovich, who was famous for his approach to Taamei HaMitzvot (Reasons for the Mitzvot)[11]. Leibovich thought that it would be better for a person not to perform a mitzvah than to do a mitzvah for any reason other than that it was commanded by ‘א. This is obviously a radical departure from classical Rabbinic thought, though he didn’t necessarily think so. He believed that the Rambam, perhaps the first big proponent of Taamei HaMitzvot, didn’t actually believe in Taamei HaMitzvot, stating that the Rambam only wrote them for the common masses who would be unable to perform the mitzvot for purer reasons. He explains that the greatness of Akedat Yitzchak was that Avraham’s great reward that he had been promised up until that point was that his children would become a great nation, and now that this had been taken away from him, now that he essentially had to take it away from himself, he still followed the command. This approach flows directly from the Chet HaEgel, from the unity of Idolatry and Disobedience, but it takes it even father. Lebovich was known for saying that anyone who did a mitzvah for any sake other than ‘א’s, it was “as if they were worshiping a strange god”. Thus, not only is Disobedience equated to Idolatry, but so to is Obeying for the wrong reason.

While Leibovich’s approach may seem a little extreme, it makes a little more sense when seen through the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, zt”l, who takes a similar, if slightly more balanced, approach to Taamei HaMitzvot.[12]

It has become a truism that religion is largely an affair of symbols. Translated into simpler terms this view regards religion as a fiction, useful to society or to man’s personal well-being. Religion is, then, no longer a relationship of man to God but a relationship of man to the symbol of his highest ideals: there is no God, but we must go on worshiping his symbol. (MQFG p.128)


He suggests that when a person performs a mitzvah for a specific reason, they have essentially made the reason for the command more important that the fact that it was a command. Doing a mitzvah is an act that puts a person in a relationship with ‘א, but if they do it for a separate reason then they’re just in a relationship with that reason, or perhaps more accurately with the originator of that reason, themselves. Reasons for mitzvot are generally determined according to what are thought of as the values ‘א would base the mitzvot on, and thus they really say  more about the values of the person who thought them up than anything else. Taamei HaMitzvot make a ritual all about the values of the person performing it.


To religion the immediate certainty of faith is more important that all metaphysical reflection, and the pious man must regard religious symbolism as a form of solipsism, and just as he who loves a person does not love a symbol or his own idea of the person but the person himself, so he who loves and fears God is not satisfied with worshiping a symbol or worshiping symbolically. (MQFG p.129)


Mitzvot performed with this mindset affirm not ‘א, but a person’s highest values, which they have thus put in place of ‘א. “Ritual Acts are moments which man shares with God, moments in which man identifies himself with the will of God” (MQFG p.139). When man performs mitzvot for the sake of ‘א, for his relationship with ‘א, he lives in relation to ‘א. When man performs mitzvot for the sake of his values, he lives in relationship to himself. While not going so far as to say this should preclude the performance of a mitzvah, Heschel echoes Leibovich’s main idea, that not only is Disobedience of a form of Idolatry, but even Obedience can take a Disobedient, and thus idolatrous, form.

The Nation of Israel was formed by the God of Israel taking us out of Egypt. The essential fact of both our existence and our purpose is that ‘א is our god who took us out of Egypt (Shemot 20:2). Upon this fact is based the whole structure of our commandments and prohibitions. This is what we rejected in Chet HaEgel, which we have been paying for ever since[13]. We have long since moved on from worshiping idols, but we have yet to obliterate Idolatry from our lives. The Idolatry of today is not the worship of gods of wood and stone(Devarim 28:64), gods that our hands have made(Yirmiyahu 25:6), but the external values of our everyday lives. The values are fine in their place, but they cannot reign above all else. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” (A.J. Heschel, MQFG, xiii). This is our modern Egel, the Idolatry of our times. Not disobedience, but the corruption of Obedience. Every time we put some other value higher[14] than the Word of ‘א, every time we follow the Word of ‘א for corrupt reasons, we stand an Egel in place of the Keruvim[15] and we dance and play (Shemot 32:6) when we ought to stand in relation to ‘א and His Word.

[1] This may be why the famous film, the Ten Commandments, combined the Korach and Egel narratives.

[2] Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Vayakhel, regarding the donation of gold being called “תנופה.”

[3] Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Ki Tisa; Rashbam on the Egel.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] Quoted in Revelation Restored, Prof. David HaLivni.

[6] Shemot 32:30 and other verses.

[7] Exploring Exodus, Nahum Sarna

[8] A. J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 1.

[9] Mechilta D’Rebbe Yishmael, Pisha 5; Sifre Shalah 111, Re’eh 54; Rashi to Shemot 23:13.

[10] Rashi, Shemos 24:12; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16.

[11] Unless otherwise sourced, all information in this paragraph is from shiurim by, and conversations with, Rav Noam Himmelstein of Yeshivat Orayta.

[12] The information in this paragraph is from his book on prayer, Man’s Quest For God, from the section on Symbolism.

[13] Fascinatingly, the Kabbalah parallels Chet HaEgel with Chet Adam HaRishon, meaning that this Idolatrous disobedience is the root of not just the episode of the golden Calf, but also that of the first recorded rebellion against the Word of ‘א. In terms of this parallel, note the prevalence of Keruvim in the Mishkan. The only other place Keruvim are found in the Chumash is Bereishit 3:24.

[14] Note that this does not include godly values. The difference between Noah and Avraham, and Moshe at Chet HaEgel for that matter, is that when hearing the Word of Destruction Noah acceded to it, while Avraham stood against it in the name of the Judge of All Earth (Bereishit 18:25). ‘א’s Word is often in tension with His Values, and that is where we are meant to struggle and come to the right conclusion as people, without the help of Revelation (Mishne Torah, Hikhot Yesodei HaTorah, 9:1).

[15] See above.

Ki Tisa 5774 – Ritual vs Moral Sin in Het HaEgel, and the Nature of the Covenant with Israel

כָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בְקִרְבּוֹ

Bracketed by the sections on Shabbat and the Mishkan, Chet HaEgel is the crescendo of the second half of Sefer Shemot. The story depicts a fall from a great height as the people, fresh from affirming their covenant with ‘א, create and worship a golden calf. Following this fall, Moshe descends from the mountain and shatters the Luchot HaEdut, the physical terms of the covenant[1]. The rest of Parashat Ki Tisa records the process of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael trying to recreate the covenant with ‘א, culminating in first the revelation to Moshe of what has become know as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy[2] and second the new terms of the Covenant.

The way that the texts regarding the Mishkan surround the story of the Egel makes it quite logical to think of the Mishkan as a command which atones for Chet HaEgel. Moreover, it also meets the problems manifest in Chet HaEgel head on. The need for a physical representation of ‘א’s Presence, which was lost when Moshe failed to come down from the mountain, is replaced by the Mishkan in general and by the Keruvim in specific, which serve the same function that the Egel was meant to serve[3]. More generally, the sin of the people represents a basic inability to follow ‘א’s commands, and thus throughout the building of the Mishkan, and all throughout Vayikra, the text repeatedly emphasizes that the people did as ‘א commanded (for example, Shemot 34:4; 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 43; and others). However, seeing the Mishkan as the fix for Chet HaEgel, rather than perhaps as a response to it, ignores the very important process of the 34th chapter of Sefer Shemot.

Shemot 34 describes the creation of a new covenant with ‘א, starting with the revelation of ‘א’s “attributes of mercy”, which explain the creation of a new covenant, and then going into the terms of the covenant, wherein ‘א goes over much of what was said in Parashat Mishpatim in Shemot 21-23. ‘א will guide Bnei Yisrael and fight their wars for them, Bnei Yisrael have to destroy the altars of Idolatry in Eretz Yisrael, etc. Notably, while much of this section if reminiscent of the statues of Parashat Mishpatim, there is one section that is copied almost exactly from Shemot 23. 34:18-26 reads as follows:

18 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you-at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt. 19 Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a rnale as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. 20 But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed. 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign LoRD, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the LoRD your God three times a year. 25 You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover shall not be left lying until morning. 26 The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.[4]

Shemot 23:10-19 is starkly similar:

10 Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.13 Be on guard concerning all that I have told you. Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.14 Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: 15 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread-eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you-at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; 16 and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. 17 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the LORD.1B You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of My festal offering shall not be left lying until morning. 19The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

The similarities between these two passages, and their respective contexts, tells us quite a bit about Chet HaEgel, but the differences tell us even more. First and foremost is the stark lack of a repetition of Shemot 21:1-23:9 before the passage in Ki Tisa. Those two and a half chapters, the majority of Parashat Mishpatim, form the bulk of the terms of the original covenant. The commandments of verses 23:10-18 are a ritualistic, ‘א-focused capstone to an otherwise essentially moralistic covenant. In Chapter 34 this moral foundation is missing; The focus is entirely on commandments that Man fulfills for ‘א. Analysis of one of these commandments in particular highlights this difference. The commandment of Shabbat appears in both 23:12, as “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed,” and 34:21, as “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time”, and the difference between them is startling. In 23:12 the commandment is accompanied by the explicit stating of its purpose, namely giving rest to slaves and work-animals. This is one of two places in Chumash where the moral aspect of Shabbat is emphasized[5]. In contrast, 34:21 has no explicit rationale. Where one pasuk specifically emphasizes morality, the other pasuk very noticeably does not. These commandments have been copied from the original covenant to the new one, and this tells us something incredible about the new covenant, and the nature of Chet HaEgel.

Chet HaEgel was not a moral sin. The people do not compromise on ethical values. The wronged party was not man but ‘א. This is obvious from the fact that really they are just worshiping an idol[6]. This is also seen from the effect of the sin. This does not mean the breaking of the tablets by Moshe or the slaughter of the transgressors at the hands of the Levi’im, but rather to the pericope of 33:7-11. In these verses, the “Tent of Meeting”[7] is moved outside the camp. Whereas generally ‘א’s presence rests in the midst of the people, it now stays beyond the boundaries of the camp, and that’s where Moshe has to go to speak with ‘א. Chet HaEgel specifically rejected the relationship between the people and ‘א that was forged at Sinai, and ‘א cannot tolerate His presence dwelling in their midst. This is specifically what the new covenant was coming to fix. The people have the ethical part of being ‘א’s nation down, they just need to work on the ‘א part.

Judaism has long been identified with repetitive and ritualistic actions. The Mishkan and all of its accompanying laws are a great example of this. This leads many people to protest, saying things like, “Isn’t it enough to just be a good person?” and “Morality is the important part anyway, right?”. While perhaps the main message of the Literary Prophets (Everything from Yeshayahu through Zekharia) is the importance of Morality, even over ritual, these protests miss the point of the Torah. The Torah was not given to make Man moral. Rather it expects man will be moral. The Torah itself attests to the fact that men can and will be moral in the absence of revelation[8], and that ‘א expects no less of us[9]. The Zohar goes so far as to suggest that if all that the Torah was meant for was to teach ethical lessons, then anyone in the world could have written it, perhaps even better than in its current form[10]. The Torah is more than just a book of moral instruction. The Torah is a book about how to live in the Presence of ‘א. While it’s true that ‘א’s Presence will not tolerate immoral behavior, living a godly life means going beyond simply being moral and moving into the realm of the Holy. Morality is the starting point of the Torah, rather than its end goal. Chet HaEgel demonstrated that Bnei Yisrael, while capable of being moral, had missed the fact that they were expected to be more, that they were , and are, expected to be a nation living in the Presence of ‘א.


[1] In Akkadian and Ugaritic texts ‘to break the tablet’ is a legal phrase meaning to cancel or nullify a contract.

[2] BT Rosh Hashanah 17b. For a comprehensive list of the different ways commentators have broken up the thirteen attributes, including some that include “visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” amongst the thirteen, see the Steinzalt edition of BT Rosh Hashanah.

[3] See the Rashbam on the purpose of the Egel, as well as Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, and Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah. It seems likely that the Egel, rather than replacing ‘א was meant to be seen as his resting place, much like the Keruvim. This explains why Aharon so readily agreed to make it, as well as why he says that the next day will be a celebration not for the Egel, but for ‘א. This explanation requires explaining Aharon’s statement of “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4) as referring to ‘א’s presence above the Egel, while the people’s simultaneous statement of the same is referring to the Egel itself. While this is difficult, especially in light of the plural nature of Aharon’s statement, it does seem to fit best with both the situation and the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The other is in Sefer Devarim, verses 5:12-15, during the repetition of the Ten Commandments.

[6] For a differing view, see Rashi to 32:6 s.v. to dance, based on  Bereishit 39:17.

[7] The phrase “אהל מועד” normally refers the Mishkan, but it cannot mean that here due to the Mishkan not being built yet. Thus it is generally understood to mean Moshe’s personal tent, where he met with ‘א before the construction of the Mishkan.

[8] Malkitzedek was clearly considered righteous according to the Pshat, and the Midrash expands on this. Nimrod seems textually to have been considered righteous, though the midrashim say otherwise.

[9] This is implied by any story wherein we find punishment without revelation, such as the Flood narrative or the Tower of Bavel.

[10] Zohar, Parashat Beha’alotkha, 152a

Purim 5775 – Purim of Days to Come: A Derashah

This was an attempt to write more in the style of a Hasidic Derashah, and as part of the more associative style of the genre, the ideas and sources sort of flow one into the next. Getting caught up in that, I think the piece got away from me a little bit and is a little more postmodern than I had in mind, but I still think it’s worth sharing. An English translation follows the original Hebrew.

״וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת יְ-הוָה כִּי כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְטַנָּם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם יְהוָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר עוֹד״ (ירמיהו לא:לג). זה פורים, שנאמר ״וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת, אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ״ (אסתר ט:יט). פורים הוא חג של אחרית הימים, כמו שכתוב, ״שכל המועדים עתידים בטלים, וימי הפורים אינם בטלים לעולם, שנאמר (אסתר ט כח): “וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים״ (מדרש משלי ט:א), שנאמר, ״לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה״ (אסתר ח:טז) זאת אורה שנגנז לצדיקים לעתיד לבוא (בר״ר יא:ב, חגיגה יב.), שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו בו. שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו שאין לומר דעו את י-הוה, כי כולם יודעים את י-הוה. אין ללמד, כי בלימוד יש מורה ותלמיד, יודע ואינו-יודע, וכולנו ידעו לכן לא שייך הכפייתיות של לימוד. אבל יש שליחת מנות, שבו אין מורה ותלמיד אלא איש ורעהו, ואין חטאתם הקודמים אלא ידיעת י-הוה. בפורים אנו בדרגה של האדם לפני חטא עץ הדעת, כמו שכתוב, ״עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי״ (מגילה ז:), ואין מקולל או מבורך אלא יודעי י-הוה. בפורים רואים באור ששת ימי בראשית, לפני שהנחש לימד את האדם לחטוא, לפני שבחרנו לדעת טוב ורע במקום לדעת את י-הוה.

“And no more shall every man teach his friend, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know ‘א’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says ‘א; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more ” (Yirmiyahu 31:33). This is a reference to Purim, as it is said, “And sending portions, each man to his friend” (Esther 9:19). Purim is the festival of the End of Days, as it is written, “For all of the holidays with be nullified in the future, but the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it is said, ‘and these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews’ (Esther 9:28).” (Midrash Mishlei 9:1), as it is said, “The Jew had light” (Esther 8:16), this is the light that was hidden for the Righteous of the future (Bereishit Rabbah 11:2, Bavli Hagiga 12a), that in the future everyone will see with. In the future, everyone will see that we shouldn’t say, “Know ‘א,” for everyone will know ‘א. We should not teach, because teaching requires a teacher and a student, now who knows and one who does not, and everyone will know. Therefore the imposition of teaching is irrelevant. However, one should send portions, for in this there is no “teacher” and “student,” just each man and his friend, and there is no previous sin, only the Knowledge of ‘א.  On Purim we are on the level of Man before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, as it is written, “until you do not know [how to differentiate] between ‘Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Bavli Megillah 7b), so there is no “cursed” or “blessed”, only knowers of ‘א. On Purim we see with the light of the six days of Creation, before the snake taught Man to sin, before we chose knowing good and evil over knowing ‘א.

Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun,

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on