Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality


The Law of the Nazir, as it appears in the sixth chapter of Sefer Bamidbar, presents an interesting dilemma. The law is introduced in verse 2, “When a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazir,” and then goes straight into the various details of the law without ever mentioning what might motivate a person to make such a vow. It is even unclear if this is a vow that everyone ought to make at some point in their life, or if it’s just meant for extreme individuals.

Ibn Ezra takes a clear stance regarding these questions in his comment on Bamidbar 6:2.

Yafli – He will separate, or will do wondrous (PL”A) things, for most of the world follows after their physical desires. Neder Nazir – a vow to be a “nazir“, which is a title. And this is from the same root[1] as “Vayinazru” (Vayikra 22:2), “they shall separate themselves”, meaning that he will distance himself from physical desires. He does this for the service of God, for wine destroys conscientiousness and the service of God.

Ibn Ezra is suggesting that while it is not mandatory for everyone to take the vow of a nazir, it is certainly the ideal, as the alternative is to give up on being a conscientious servant of God. Moreover, the nazir may head to one extreme, but this is only because everyone else is heading to the other. The nazir is motivated to serve God in the only way really possible. Given the choice between a life of constantly chasing after lust and desire or a life of godly asceticism, presumably everyone should choose the latter.

Rashi, however, brings a midrash with a very different approach. “Ki Yafli – he will separate. Why was the passage of the Nazir juxtaposed with the passage of the Sotah, the suspected wife? To teach you the anyone who sees the punishment of the Sotah should separate himself from wine, for wine brings a person to adultery.” According to the midrash, only a specific person under a specific set of circumstances should take the vow of the nazir. Specifically, someone who has seen the ultimate consequences of physical indulgence, someone so struck by their experience that they feel the only option is to stay away from all physical pleasure. Everyone else, however, should continue with life as normal, which presumably involves a normal amount of physical pleasure.

William James, in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, discusses the religious phenomenon of asceticism, which he relates to what he calls “the sick soul.”

For in its spiritual meaning asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.

This is an approach to the world that sees it as inherently broken and evil. The sick soul’s only response is to flee from the world, to stand up against evil. The ascetic is thus a heroic figure, fighting for good by abstaining from that which is inherently evil.

As against this view, the ultra-optimistic form of the once-born philosophy thinks we may treat evil by the method of ignoring. Let a man who, by fortunate health and circumstances, escapes the suffering of any great amount of evil in his own person, also close his eyes to it as it exists in the wider universe outside his private experience, and he will be quit of it altogether, and can sail through life happily on a healthy-minded basis.

This approach sees the world as inherently good, despite the fact that there is some evil in it, and thus a person need only avoid the evil, rather than fight against it.

The nazir of the midrash is James’ ascetic. He has seen that there is evil in the world, that indulgence reigns and that it leads to great suffering, and his only response is to push the world away as forcefully as he can. He struggles on, his life a heroic fight against the flaws of the world he lives in. Everyone else, however, remains blissfully unaware that such a struggle might be necessary, and they can live their lives according to the rest of the laws of the Torah.

What makes the nazir of the midrash different from James’ is what they see as evil, what has led them to separate from worldly experiences. James’ “sick soul” has discovered that there is evil in the world due to its very nature as a physical realm. The nazir of the midrash has seen the moral consequences of physical indulgence. He has seen that over-indulgence has led to the destruction of the bond between individuals, to the humiliation of a person subjected to a ritualistic examination. All of these could be avoided if a person is willing to forgo their physical nature, to assume a more spiritual life. The ascetic flees the world into the welcoming arms of suffering; the nazir steps away from the world and toward its inhabitants, toward a more moral life. While the vow of the nazir is almost unheard of in our day and age, the drive of the nazir should not be. While we won’t decide to abstain from wine and cutting our hair, the passage of the nazir should give us pause to consider our excesses, and the way these excesses affect not only ourselves and our relationship with ‘א, but also the people around us.

[1] Note that this not the only possible etymology. Nazir could also come from the word “nezer”, meaning “crown.” That would explain the odd phrasing of Bamidbar 2:7 and explain the connection between 2:8 and Shemot 28:37 & 39:30. Based on this connection, it might be correct to consider the Nazir as a kohen gadol whose focus is on morality (see the end of this essay)  as opposed to the kohen gadol whose focus is on ritual.

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?


Parashat Behar focuses largely, though not entirely, on the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years respectively[1]. These laws are often seen as a continuum, with one the former flowing naturally into the latter. Shemitah occurs every 7th year, when all of the Jews of the land of Israel must declare their land ownerless and let it lie fallow for a whole year; they may neither sow nor reap in the land. Yovel occurs every 50th year, just after every 7th Shemitah year. In Yovel, all sales of land are nullified and the lands are returned to their owner, and all slaves are set free. Thus Shemitah entails a nullification of dominance over the land, and Yovel entails a revoking of sales and ownership. However, this depiction runs across a critical flaw when it comes to the textual depiction of the return of lands and slaves in Vayikra 25:13, “In this year of Yovel you shall return every man to his portion [of land].” The text does not depict the return of lands as something separate from the freeing of slaves. In fact, it does not describe the return of lands at all. Rather it talks about the return of slaves as free individuals to their ancestral homelands. Thus Shemitah and Yovel are in fact conflicting, not continuous. Shemitah involves people stepping back from the land and their ownership of it, while Yovel requires people coming close to the land of their families. The former creates a sense of distance and otherness from the land, while the latter conditions a sense of familiarity and identity with it.

The tension can be resolved by reformulating the concept of the Yovel in a way that focuses on ownership after all. However, it is in the reverse way of it was formulated before. Instead of Yovel being about whether or not the land belongs to us, it’s about whether or not we belong to the land. Thus the whole of the Yovel/Shemitah passage can be summed up conceptually as, “The land doesn’t belong to us so much as we belong to the land.” Thus Shemitah and Yovel do in fact form a continuum, as we first recognize every 7 years that we do not really own the land, and then in the 50th year we take yet one step further away from ownership and recognize that we, in fact, are creatures of the land we are born on and are in a sense owned by it.

At this point it is worth bringing up a conceptual dichotomy discussed by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)[2] regarding the difference between what he calls “earth” (אדמה) and “land” (ארץ). Rav Shagar says that “earth” refers to the elemental reality that all humans are born out of, to what it means to exist as a human being. In contrast, “land” refers to the society people construct, the power-oriented political structures we create. All human have a connection to the earth, and groups of people create their own various lands. In Shemitah we step back from the “land”, renouncing any sense of ultimacy that we attribute to our constructed societies, we recognize that our ownership is anything but absolute. In Yovel, we are still getting back beyond our conditional societies, but the emphasis is not on shattering these false idols, but on getting back to the source, getting back to the basics of what it means to be human. While Yovel is not applicable in our day, Shemitah is made all but negligible by the innovation of the Heter Mekhirah[3], and the number of Jews who live the sort of agrarian lifestyle where these rules are really felt is negligible, it’s important to recognize that these laws still have something to teach us. In our societies, we often become too caught up in the hierarchies and stratifications that we use to categorize and understand the people around us. While these structures are important, we need to step back every now and then and realize that they’re only constructs, and that at the root of it we’re all people. Further, living in these structures causes us to get locked into very particular ways of understanding ourselves, and every now and then we need to get back to our very human essence, and realize that we can choose how we want to define ourselves and our world in the future.

[1] The ideas in this composition are based to some degree on “Father Sky and Mother Earth” by Rav Shagar, found in “On That Day: Sermons and Essays for the holidays of Iyar”, pg. 207-216.

[2] “On That Day”, pg. 37. Note that he also includes a third category, “State” (מדינה), that is absolutely worth reading about but was beyond the scope of this composition.

[3] Literally “Permission of Sale”, wherein land in Israel is sold to a non-jew in order to exempt it from the laws of Shemitah.

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”.

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

Parashat Tetsaveh 5774 – The Tension Between Keva and Kavanah In The Mishkan

תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

The parshiyot of the Mishkan are peppered with examples of repeated words and phrases. Some of there because lots of parts of the Mishkan are similar, so the instructions are repeated. For example, “According to all that I show thee” (Shemot 25:9, 40; 27:8), or “round about” (Ibid 25:11, 23, 34, 35; 27:17; 28:32, 33, 34; 29:16, 20; 30:3; 37:2, 10, 11, 12, 26; 38:16, 20, 31; 39:23, 25, 26; 40:8, 33). However, there are other words or phrases that are repeated not out of functional necessity, but because they are key concepts that help us hone in on the purpose and nature of the Mishkan. In Parashat Tetsaveh there are three such phrases that stand out in particular, that of “תמיד”, “לדורותיכם”, and “לפני י-הוה ”. The phrase “לדורותיכם” shows up only five times in context of the instructions for and building of the Mishkan (Shemot 29:42; 30:8, 10, 31; 31:13), but the majority of the times it shows up in the Torah, outside of these parshiyot, it is in the context of the Mishkan and its rituals. “תמיד” shows up eight times in context of building of and instructions for the Mishkan (Ibid. 25:30; 27:20; 28:29; 28:38; 29:28, 42; 30:8), but of the eighteen times it shows up in the Torah as a whole, only once (Devarim 11:12) is it not in regards to the Mishkan and the rituals related to it[1]. The phrase “לפני י-הוה” is certainly the most commonly found of the phrases, showing up a grand total of 147 times in the Torah, of which 18 are in the parshiyot of the Mishkan in Sefer Shemot (Ibid. ), and over a hundred of which deal with Mishkan (or the Bet HaMikdash) and its rituals. These ideas are very strong themes of the Mishkan, and their repetition is meant to highlight that. The question that leads to, however, is what are these themes, and what do they mean? One might suggest that perhaps the two more dominant themes, תמיד and לפני י-הוה, are a manifestation of what Heschel called the dichotomy of Keva (קבע) and Kavanah (כוונה), Fixed Practice and Personal Intention, respectively.

Things that are Keva are fixed. They do not change. This means things like the rules of Halakhah, like the words of Tefillah. These things are established. This has a lot of advantages. The idea of Keva creates unity. When everyone is doing or saying the same thing, that creates a community. A minyan can only pray together because they’re all saying the same thing. Keva also creates consistency. When you can change what you do on a daily basis, often you do, and your actions become subject to human whim. Often, they fall away and are forgotten altogether. Thus Keva also ensures continuity. But it also has downsides. Keva tends to quash individuality and spontaneity, it leaves no room for real religious emotion. All the members of a minyan should be saying the same words, but if they’re all thinking the same things then they aren’t really davening[2]. When things are repeated day after day they can become bland and meaningless. If the entirety of a mitzvah is the physical process, then it hasn’t changed or affected the person doing it the way it ought to have. This is where Kavanah comes in.

Kavanah means personal intention. Kavanah is the soul of Halakhah, the true spirit of Tefillah. It is the meaning and emotion with which a person can imbue actions and words. Kavanah allows for a personal element. It allows for the individual to express their self. It creates a sense of freshness and renewal. It is the honest and meaningful religious experience. But it, too, has downsides. When all that matters is personal intention, the result is a sort of religious anarchy, with everyone doing their own thing. When Kavanah is the decisive factor, then you don’t practice or pray on the days when you don’t have Kavanah, which tends to leads to less and less prayer and practice. Taken to an extreme, the ideal of Kavanah totally rejects taking any form of action, which is certainly not a tenable position within Judaism. Neither one can be rejected out of hand; the goal is a balance, a sense of polarity.

For something to be Tamid (תמיד) is for it be consistent, or in other words, established. All of the actions in the Mishkan that are described as Tamid are things that are done according to a regular fixed cycle. And what could be more of a religious experience than something that is Lifnei Hashem (לפני י-הוה)? Thus, based on the dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem, we can see this tension of Keva and Kavanah even in the Mishkan. The problem with this, however, is that Lifnei Hashem does not necessarily denote a religious experience.

The phrase “Lifnei Hashem” is often applied to the same actions or rituals as the term “Tamid.” This could means that the two ideas exist in tension within the same act, but it could also imply that Lifnei Hashem simply does not contradict Tamid, and that’s how they can both be applied to the same act. This would mean that while Tamid is still Keva, Lifnei Hashem cannot be Kavanah.

Taking a step back, this seems almost obvious. The Torah does not often communicate the content of religious experiences. This makes sense as the Torah, generally speaking, is a manifestation of Keva. The Torah speaks to the entirety of the nation, creating principles and actions for the entire community of Israel. The Torah has a heavy emphasis on Law. This is where Rashi is coming from when he asks why the Torah doesn’t simply start with the first time Bnei Yisrael receive a mitzvah. When the Torah does communicate ideas related to the religious experience, it does so obliquely, through terse statements[3] or woven into narrative form[4]. It does not speak straight out or clearly about Kavanah. So what then is the meaning of Lifnei Hashem?

Lifnei Hashem is a quality of these actions performed in the Mishkan. This is because, in a sense, all actions performed in the Mishkan are Lifnei Hashem. The purpose of the Mishkan is that is is where Bnei Yisrael go to stand before and in relation to ‘א. That is where His presence dwells (Shemot 25:8, 29:45). However, this is not an inherent quality of the Mishkan. ‘א does not dwell there by necessity. Rather ‘א is present in the Mishkan in order to meet with us (Ibid. 25:22, 29:43). This is essentially arbitrary. ‘א is in the Mishkan because ‘א said so, and thus these Tamid actions are Lifnei Hashem, because ‘א said so.

What this means for our dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem is that it is not a dichotomy at all. Both terms are descriptions of the action, one describing it’s physical performance and the other referring to its nature. Tamid refers to their form and Lifnei Hashem speaks about their meaning. While still seeming somewhat simple, this is actually a revolutionary idea. People tend to assume that any action done consistently has no religious value. That automated, instructed, actions can be religious is the modern mind at the very least unlikely. In a certain sense, Kavanah has won out over and completely dominated Kavanah. People understand the importance of the religious experience, to the point of dismissing and denigrating consistent actions. In the vessels and rituals of the Mishkan, ‘א tells us, quite radically, that a regularly performed ritual can by itself exist before ‘א.

“Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, ‘א has no place in this world outside the 4 Amot of Halakha.”[5] The Halakha, the most archetypical example of Keva, is the replacement for the Mikdash in terms of the presence of ‘א. If you want to be Lifnei ‘א, you used to be able to just go to the Mikdash, or the Mishkan, and there you would stand before ‘א. Since the destruction of the Mikdash, ‘א is present in the acts and deeds of Halakha. Thus, even in the absence of Kavanah, Keva remains not just important, but as central to the life of Israel as the Mikdash once was. In the instructions for the Mishkan and it’s vessels, ‘א declares that it is through the specific actions that ‘א has lain before us that we relate to him. Despite the ultimate importance of personal intention and the religious experience, it is through Keva that we put ourselves in a relationship with ‘א.
[1] This example can also be read as being about the Mishkan, as it discusses the Land of Israel. Throughout the Torah, particularly in the second half of Sefer Vayikra, the terminology of the Mishkan is used in reference to Eretz Yisrael in order to create an equivalency there, an important underlying premise of Exile. For more on this, see the introductions to the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary: Leviticus, by Jacob Milgrom.

[2] This a general statement, but not an absolute one. Adding a personal prayer, said aloud, to the end of Shemoneh Esrei is not just allowed, it’s where Elohai Nitsor comes from.

[3] Classic examples include, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם”, “Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy,” (Vayikra 19:2) and “וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים”, “therefore choose life,” (Devarim 30:19).

[4] This obviously includes everything before the first mitzvah is given, as per Rashi, but also such stories as the Blasphemer (Bamidbar 15), the Daughters of Tselophehad(Ibid. 27), and the Spies (Ibid. 13).

[5] Talmud Bavli Masekhet Berakhot 8a.