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 Va’era 5774 – The God of Israel

הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם

The entire Exodus narrative, and the story of the Ten Plagues in particular, is the first occurrence in Tanakh of the war against Idolatry[1]. Part of what made Judaism unique in the ancient world was not just the belief in one god but also the total rejection of any other gods. In Sefer Bereishit the Avot, and the Torah, seem perfectly content with the Idolatry of the other residents of Canaan. Only in Egypt, in the fight against Paroah and Gods of Egypt does it become clear that Idolatry is an unacceptable way of life for anyone and everyone. However, the Tanakh does not depict the drama of Egypt as a simple matter of one god versus many. The conflict happens on three levels and, in the end, it details the emergence of a new system for National and Religious Leadership based on a uniquely Israelite idea[2].

The obvious story of the Plagues is that of the tension between ‘א and Paroah. Now the idea of a human ruler defying the transcendent and unlimited ‘א seems odd, but that’s not how the Tanakh conceives of the relationship between Man and ‘א. “History is where God is defied.”[3]  The Tanakh shows that Man has the ability to go against the will of ‘א, but‘א will inevitably triumph. That idea, started earlier in Sefer Bereishit, here comes to total fruition in the fight against Paroah.

Paroah and ‘א are in many ways equated in the text of the Torah. Perhaps most obvious is the emphasis on their nations. In contrast to ‘א’s refrain of “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” (Shemot 7:17, 26; 8:16; 9:13 the Egyptians are consistently referred to as “[Paroah]’s Nation”. ‘א has his nation and Paroah has his. Writ large, the torah creates a picture where Paroah and ‘א (via Moshe) face off in a battle for dominance. It’s ‘א’s will versus Paroah’s, with the decision consistently going to ‘א. Moreover, Egyptian rulers were not considered to be ordinary men of flesh and blood. They were considered to be divine, or close to it, and thus the defeat of Paroah is the defeat of Idolatry. When ‘א said, “and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD[4]”, He was also talking about Paroah, and when Paroah admits defeat it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of ‘א.

The second level of the story is that of the conflict between Moshe and Paroah. The idea is that of two kings facing off, which might be why some commentators have compared the Ten Plagues to the procedures for conquering a city. While not strictly-speaking a “King,” Moshe represents the leadership of a nation concentrated in one person, much in the manner of a monarchy. But as opposed to the conflict between ‘א and Paroah, Moshe’s fight is not for domination. Moshe’s fight is for the heart of the nation. Moshe brings plagues in order to demonstrate ‘א’s majesty and dominance before the people, that they might recognize His greatness[5]. Moshe as King rules not out of strength and not as a matter of personal right, but as an apostle of ‘א.

This idea is highlighted by several very important midrashim. On several occasions Moshe is told to go meet Paroah along the river early in the morning. The midrash comments that the reason Paroah went for his walk early in the morning was in order to secretly relieve himself[6]. Due to the divine or semi-divine status of Egyptian kings, he could not be seen to do so by the public, and so for this purpose he used to go early in the morning to the river. Thus the divine status of Paroah is not only false but Paroah knows it is false and has to maintain it by deceiving his people. This midrash points to the way Egyptians conceived of their king as divine while simultaneously rejecting and ridiculing it. In stark contrast is the Tanakh’s depiction of Moshe.

In the middle of a discussion between Moshe and ‘א regarding Moshe’s ability to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt the Torah suddenly interjects with Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. Whereas by Moshe’s birth his parents are anonymous, here the Torah says who they are explicitly, revealing something very interesting. The marriage of Avraham and Yocheved is what would after the revelation at Har Sinai become considered an inappropriate sexual relationship. The midrash not only points this fact out, it highlights similar relationships by Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov and his first wives, and several instances throughout David HaMelekh’s ancestry. The midrash points out that the leadership of Bnei Yisrael often comes from what we think of as inappropriate origins[7], and that this is intentional. Part of the problem with Kings historically has been that they often come to think of themselves as divine, that they are the be-all and end-all, and that is simply not so. The midrash states that this could never be an issue with these Israelite leaders because as opposed to being thought of as divine, they all have rather ignominious backgrounds. Thus the conditional nature of the Jewish King is made clear in the fight against the “divine” King of  Egypt[8]. Moshe rules Bnei Yisrael not as one entitled to do so by birth, but as the appointed messenger of ‘א.

Aharon’s position in the Torah is complex, and that is true right from the outset. It seems clear from ‘א’s words to Moshe that Aharon is simply meant to be a speaker for Moshe but Moshe seems to do plenty of speaking on his own. Moreover, Aharon is personally responsible for the bringing of several plagues, and is often referred to directly alongside Moshe throughout the duration of the Plagues. As much as he does serve as Moshe’s “mouth” and “prophet”, he really is his own character in the story.

Aharon’s purpose here is not simple. First and foremost, throughout the Torah Aharon is the High Priest of Israel. But noticeably, he doesn’t do anything specifically priestly here in Egypt. The one things he does that some might have argued is a priestly act is the performance of wonders, something that in other civilizations and Egypt in particular was a priestly function. But the lack of any other priestly functions here that instead of adopting the Egyptian idea of the Priest-Magician, the Torah is actually rejecting it[9]. Aharon performs wonders not as a priest who bends nature to his will, but as a prophet who bends nature to ‘א’s will.

In this role, Aharon has a very specific message to convey. He personally brings the first few plagues, often alongside Moshe, and the language there makes clear the purpose of those plagues. Aharon brings plagues in order to punish the Egyptians[10]. They enslaved and mistreated ‘א’s nation and their retribution is to come through Aharon’s hand. Thus any plague brought or wonder performed by Aharon has a much greater emphasis on the effect it has on the Egyptians than when Moshe brings a plague (As mentioned above, Moshe brings plagues for an entirely different purpose: teaching Bnei Yisrael about ‘א. Moshe performs plagues in order to show Bnei Yisrael who they are being redeemed by.) However, there is not a word in the whole section about Aharon performing a wonder or causing a plague by his own power or volition.

This idea, of the contrast between Prophet and Priest, is highlighted by a very similar story found in Sefer Shmuel I[11]. In Shmuel I 5 ‘א brings plagues on the Plishtim for having stolen the Aron and where Paroah consults his “magicians” the Plishtim consult their “priests and diviners” (Samuel I 6:2). Aharon, standing next to Moshe as the magicians stand beside Paroah, stands in clear contrast to this idea of “priests and diviners.” The Jewish Priest has a very specific function in context of the Mishkan/Mikdash and not beyond. The role of miracle-worker is reserved[12] for the messenger of ‘א.

The divine “conflict” between ‘א and the “gods of Egypt” serves to display ‘א’s uncontested authority in the world. Moshe’s face-off with Paroah shows how all leaders, no matter how great, are always human, and therefore are all subordinate to ‘א and His grace. Aharon’s position against the magicians rejects completely the concept of magic and wonders performed outside of the Divine Will, regardless of their accord with it, for nothing is outside the Divine Will.

All of these concepts are manifestations of a larger, infinitely simple idea: ‘א is Primary[13]. Pagan conceptions of their deities always give them secondary places in reality. The deity is always born of some other creature, or made of some primordial-stuff. The existence of reality before and beyond divinity makes its power necessarily limited. The nature of divinity as created puts it in the same category as other creations, such as man, and allows for the possibility of divine, or semi-divine, kings, and for apotheosis. The idea that divinity is created means that its power must come from somewhere rather than being inherent in it, and this is the power that it uses for its works, but this power can also be used by others for the aid or detriment of divinity. Yitziat Mitzraim rejects all of these conceptions. ‘א is Primary. He has no origin and there is nothing that He did not create. All is subject to His Will and there is no power beyond it. The God is Israel is the God of All Existence and there is none beside Him.


Here is a helpful chart from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus on the breakdown of the Plagues:

Plague - Breakdown

[1] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

[2] This is why the story of the Plagues starts with the Parshiyah of Shemot 6:2-8, a sudden recap of ‘א’s relationship to the avot and the nation.  The chiastic structure of this section is clearly highlighting the idea of ‘א’s special relationship to Bnei Yisrael and ‘א as the only god, and those concepts point directly to this idea.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] All translations are from

[5] R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[6] Rashi Ad Loc., Shemot Rabbah 9:7

[7] Hizkuni on story of Yehuda and Tamar; Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vayeshev

[8] Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vaera

[9] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 85

[10]  R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[11] R’ Amnon Bazak, Parallels That Meet (Hebrew), Chap. 4

[12] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 82, 85

[13] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

Yom Kippur 5775 – Cleansing The Mishkan, Cleansing Our Lives

לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ׳הוָה תִּטְהָרוּ

The sixteenth chapter of Sefer Vayikra describes the details[1] of the Kohen HaGadol’s ritual service in the Mishkan/Mikdash for Yom HaKippurim. The Kohen HaGadol goes back and forth, changing out of various sets of clothing, slaughtering certain animals, and using those animals’ blood to purify the Mikdash/Mishkan. The purpose of all of these rites is explicitly described in Vayikra 16:32-34.

32 And the priest, who shall be anointed and who shall be consecrated to be priest in his father’s stead, shall perform the cleansing (כפר), and shall put on the linen garments, the holy garments. 33 And he shall cleanse (כפר) the most holy place, and he shall cleanse (כפר) the tent of meeting and the altar; and he shall cleanse (כפר) the priests and all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, to cleanse (כפר) the children of Israel of all their sins once a year.’ And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.

The purpose of the rituals of Yom Kippur is to cleanse the Nation of Israel and the Mikdash from the Impurity that their sins have caused. While it seems intuitive that Bnei Yisrael would need to be cleansed from their sins, it seems rather arbitrary and strange that the Mikdash and the Altar therein would need to be cleansed from the transgressions of Bnei Yisrael. How are the two connected? Answering this question requires delving into the cultural and historical context of Israel’s Impurity laws in general[2], and the Yom HaKippurim rituals in specific, which reveals the incredible power and importance they attribute to the actions of Bnei Yisrael.

The entering of the Kohen HaGadol to the holy of holies on Yom HaKippurim is closely paralleled by the entrance of the King of Babylonia to the Temple of Marduk on the fifth day of Akitu, accompanied by the high priest[3]. However, as with other such parallels, what is striking is not the large amount of similarities but the differences between the two sets of rituals. The most important difference in these specific rituals is who the rituals are focused on. Once inside the temple, the King would declare, “I have not sinned, O Lord of the universe, and I have not neglected your heavenly might.” The focus is entirely on the King and things he might have done. In stark contrast, the rites of Yom Kippur focus on the people themselves. “And he shall cleanse the priests and all the people of the assembly. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, to cleanse the children of Israel of all their sins once a year” (Vayikra 16:33b-34a). Where the only person really valued by the Babylonian ritual is the King, the Yom HaKippurim service makes it clear that every member of Bnei Yisrael is important, and thus each and every Israelite must be purified.

Above and beyond the specific rituals of Yom HaKippurim, there are important contrasts between the whole system of Impurity Laws as found in the Torah and those from the surrounding cultures[4]. The various cultures of the Ancient Near East were full of such impurity laws, and they all shared a common purpose of fighting the demonic. In their mythologies, the gods were in constant struggle with demons, who drew their power from Impurity. Therefore any source of impurity, whether a corpse or a body emission or loose hairs and fingernails, aided the demons in their fight against the gods. It was for this reason that impure people were not allowed access to the temple, popularly thought of as the living space of the god, for fear that they would cause impurity therein and make the god of that temple vulnerable to the demons. In a case of a large build-up of Impurity in a temple, the god of that temple could even be driven away, forced out of their own abode. The yearly purification-rituals were intended to cleanse the temple of any impurities that might have developed anyway, and thus strengthen the god.

The Israelite conception of Impurity deviates strongly from this. Instead of focusing on the demonic, the Torah’s purity laws express the great tension between Life and Death, with Impurity resulting from events and processes associated with Death[5]. The most obvious example of this is Tsara’at, which, in addition to being a debilitating disease, causes the afflicted to resemble a corpse. Hence, when Miriam is afflicted with Tsara’at,  Aharon pleads, “Let her not be like a corpse” (Bamidbar 12:12). The Torah sees impurity not as empowering some mythological demonic force, but as an expression of the profound tension between Life and Death. Thus when someone or something is impure and cannot enter the Mikdash, this is a function of sensitivity to the great value of Life.

The laws of Tumah and Taharah, Impurity and Purity, are part of the Torah’s larger emphasis on Life, as seen in the command to the nation to “Choose Life” (Devarim 30:19). Throughout Sefer Devarim there is a profound emphasis placed on the value of Life and on Life as a goal of keeping the Torah. It is due to this emphasis that deliberate transgressions of the Torah create impurity that can be cleansed only by the rituals of Yom HaKippurim[6]. Intentional violations of the covenant between Bnei Yisrael and ‘א create impurity that affects the Mishkan so dramatically that it has to have a special ceremony to remove it, rather than being removed by normal atonement processes.

Where the various cultures of the Ancient Near East saw their gods as threatened by demons, the Torah says that ‘א’s presence is impinged upon by Death, and Man’s hand it it. When we break away from the Torah, we break away from a life-affirming covenant with ‘א, and we push away the presence of the Living God. It is reminiscent of an aphorism of the Kotzker Rebbe. “Where is God? Wherever you let him in.” The Yom HaKippurim rites in the Mikdash reaffirm ‘א’s desire to live amongst His People Israel. However they also make it clear that ‘א has made His being present dependent upon us. We no longer have the Bet HaMikdash, or the Mishkan, but the same is true in our own lives. When we affirm ‘א’s Torah, and when we embrace Life, we invite ‘א into our lives. But when we break away from the Torah we push Him away. Yom HaKippurim is a time when ‘א re-enters our lives, expecting us to have done our part to invite him back in. Throughout the liturgy of Yom HaKippurim, ‘א forgives us even before we do Teshuvah[7]. He returns to us, it is up to us to empty ourselves of the things we have done wrong, and to return to Him.

[1] A step-by-step, in depth, detailing of the ritual is recorded in the mishnayot of Masekhet Yoma.

[2] For those uncomfortable taking such an approach to understanding the mitsvot, I would point out that Rambam applied this approach rather liberally in Moreh Nevukhim, and I would add that archaeology has shown Rambam to be rather correct in doing so.

[3] A little bit on this parallel can be found in this less than excellent Ha’Aretz article. For a  more comprehensive  discussion with far better analysis, see the introduction to J. Milgrom’s commentary on Sefer Vayikra.

[4] For more, see J. Milgrom, “The Rationale for Biblical Impurity.” Additionally, see the introduction to J. Milgrom’s commentary on Sefer Vayikra.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Jewish Study Bible, Vayikra 16:1-34n.

[7] R’ Amnon Bazak.