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.

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

There is a deep tension in the nature of Hanukah. The holiday is most commonly understood as a celebration of the miracle of the oil, as described in Masekhet Shabbat.

What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God’s wonders) were to be recited. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Shabbat, 21b)

This gemara depicts the Maccabees entering the temple and, upon preparing to light the Menorah, finding only enough pure oil to light the Menorah for one day. When they lit the Menorah, however, it miraculously stayed lit for eight days, and thus the holiday of Hanukah was established to commemorate this. The liturgical passage of Al HaNisim, however, presents an entirely different picture of the nature of the holiday.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

Al Hanisim doesn’t even mention the miracle of the oil. Instead, it focuses on the miraculous military campaign where ‘א helped the Hasmoneans, the Maccabees, fight against the Seleucids, delivering “the many into the hands of the few.” It makes a brief mention of the kindling of lights in the Beit HaMikdash, but that is a far cry from the miraculous lighting of the gemara. The key to resolving this tension lies far earlier than either of these texts, in the dedications of the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash that acted as precedents for the rededication in the time of the Maccabees.

The dedication of the Mishkan is described three separate times in the Torah, each with a different emphasis and context. The first time is at the very end of Sefer Shemot, when Moshe finishes putting up the Mishkan and the Cloud of ‘א descends upon it (Shemot 40:17-38). The second is in Sefer Vayikra, at the end of the long list of sacrificial laws that starts off the sefer (Vayikra 9). Finally, in Bamidbar 7, the dedication takes the form of the donations and sacrifices of the Nesi’im of Bnei Yisrael to the Miskhan. Each of these dedications express a different aspect of the Mishkan. That of Sefer Shemot, capping the whole construction of the Mishkan, focuses on the way the Mishkan serves as a mobile Mount Sinai, with an emphasis on Moshe and the way that ‘א would reveal himself above the Keruvim (Shemot 25:22). The dedication of Sefer Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan as the place Bnei Yisrael would come to bring sacrifices to ‘א, and where Aharon and the Kohanim would serve daily. Sefer Bamidbar focuses on the heads of the Tribes of Israel and the presence of ‘א amidst the developing Nation of Israel. Thus these three dedications together depict the Mishkan as the place where ‘א comes to Bnei Yisrael, the place where Bnei Yisrael come to ‘א, and the living presence of the two together.

After the fall of the Mishkan, there was no House of ‘א in Israel, until Shelomoh HaMelekh built the Bet HaMikdash in Sefer Melakhim I. The dedication of the Bet HaMikdash is described in Melakhim I:8. The majority of the chapter is taken up not by the celebrations or even by the dedication itself, but by a long exhortation of the people by Shelomoh (8:12-61). (This exhortation takes the form of blessings to the people and a prayer to ‘א but it seems clear that the people are meant to hear the prayer and learn from it.) The main emphasis in this passage is on the incredible nature of an infinite god dwelling in a man-made structure, or any structure for that matter, and the inherently conditional nature of ‘א’s presence amidst Israel. The passage emphasizes the way that misdeeds and evil are punished when ‘א dwells amongst the people, and the harsh requirements of the Presence of ‘א. The corresponding passage in Sefer Divrei HaYamim II:6 is roughly the same, with perhaps slightly more emphasis on the House of David (6:46).

Much like these earlier passages from Tanakh, the gemara in Masekhet Shabbat and the Al HaNisim prayer present the rededication of the second Bet HaMikdash in very different ways. Al HaNisim presents it in context of the military victory, the divine salvation of the Jews from the political and religious domination of the Seleucids, while Masekhet Shabbat presents the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash in context of the divine grace manifest in the miracle of the oil, of the flaring up of the supernatural in the midst of the natural. Perhaps, unsatisfied with a holiday celebrating the victory of the Jewish over the Greek, Hazal focused on the rededication as a victory of the Holy over the Mundane. Instead of focusing on the reclaiming of the Bet HaMikdash, Hazal chose to emphasize the miracle that would be more meaningful for a people in exile. The holiday didn’t gain and lose facets based on the historical situation of those celebrating it, but certain facets are emphasized, while others are overshadowed. Now that we have returned to the land of Israel, now that the Jews have a sovereign land again, Hanukah presents us with not just with a celebration but with a question. In what context do we view the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash? What aspects are we going to focus on? Are we going to follow Maimonides, and emphasize both the military victory and the miracle of the oil? Are we going to be reminded by Hanukah of our leadership in the land, and all the responsibility that entails? And can we do so without forgetting that which lies above our natural existence, that which exceed our greatest possible expectations? Our relationship with ‘א, concretized in the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash, is multifaceted, and can be seen in multiple lights. Which facets we emphasize, how we view the Hanukah lights, is up to us.

[1] Translation from chabad.org

[2] I have discussed this in greater detail here.

[3] This also explains the different explanations for the establishment of the holiday found in Maccabees I, Maccabees II, Megillat Taanit, and Josephus’ Antiquities.

[4] “In [the era of] the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, [attempting to] nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments. They extended their hands against their property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the arrangement of candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.Accordingly, the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, which begin from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, should be commemorated to be days of happiness and praise [of God]. Candles should be lit in the evening at the entrance to the houses on each and every one of these eight nights to publicize and reveal the miracle.These days are called Chanukah. It is forbidden to eulogize and fast on them, as on the days of Purim. Lighting the candles on these days is a Rabbinic mitzvah, like the reading of the Megillah.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah U’Hanukah, 3:1-3) (Translation from chabad.org)

Parashat Emor – Distinction and Equality

מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה

Parashat Emor includes the second of the two narratives in Sefer Vayikra, the story of the Blasphemer, found in chapter 24. Upon its first reading, the story seems a little strange, but a closer examination reveals that this strangeness in fact discloses the great importance of this narrative.

10 There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. 11The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses-now his mother’s name was Shelomith daugh­ter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan 12 and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. 13 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. 15 And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; 16 if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.  17 If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. 18 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. 19 If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 21 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God. 23 Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses.[1]

Why does the text go out of its way to detail the man’s half-israelite heritage? And why is the narrative interrupted by law of Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye” (vss. 17-22)? As we shall see, a proper understanding of Lex Talionis will answer both of these questions, and thus unlock the meaning of the entire story and its purpose in Sefer Vayikra.

Lex Talionis, known more commonly by its refrain “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, is the biblical doctrine of exact compensation. It means that when a person commits a crime against another person that causes damage, the punishment or reparation must match the crime exactly. This doctrine is commonly thought of in Western society as a manifestation of a primitive need for vengeance, the likes of which society has long since outlived. This view is only possible when the law is examined superficially and out of its proper historical setting. Lex Talionis is found in plenty of law codes from the same time period as the Torah, and examining the law in context of those codes, and others, makes the real purpose of the law clear. The true purpose of Lex Talionis is not vengeance, but equality. The doctrine is a reaction to the common cultural and legal milieu of the time wherein the law treated people differently based on their class. People of higher social classes received preferential treatment. The biblical law explicitly fights against this in its requirement of one law for all people, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra 10:22) One rule for all members of the society means no preferential treatment for higher classes. Even further, most law codes that mention Lex Talionis intend it literally, and this serves to create even more legal equality.[2] Monetary compensation innately favors the rich upper classes. If a poor person has to pay X amount for stealing, it’s going to cause them to suffer a lot more than a rich person who has to pay the same amount. Thus, on several levels, the doctrine of Lex Talionis is meant to create equality amongst the people of Israel.

If we take this idea of an anti-caste polemic and paste it into the narrative of the Blasphemer, the reason for many of the oddities of the story becomes clear. Moshe’s lack of clarity regarding the punishment for the blasphemer flows from the blasphemers mixed parentage. While the law regarding blasphemy is clear, Moshe was unclear on whether or not the same law applied to someone who was only a half-Israelite. The law was given for, and applies to, the Nation of Israel. But what degree of Israelite parentage is necessary to make a person fully Israelite? Full Parentage? Half? What if only one of a persons grandparents is an Israelite? ‘א’s response is unequivocal: there’s no class distinctions among the Israelites. Lex Talionis: If you’re an Israelite then you’re an Israelite; There’s no legal distinction between groups of people.

This same theme is present in the laws of the holidays, mentioned in Vayikra 23 and in other places in the Torah. In the laws of Sukkot (Vayikra 23:42) the Torah specifically states that the holiday of Sukkot is for every member of Israel, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” Part of the purpose of Sukkot and the other Regalim, the three times all of Israel gather in Jerusalem, is to create unity in the nation. This is made clear when the laws of the holidays are discussed in Sefer Devarim, chapter 16,

“11 You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. 12 Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws… 14 You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communi­ties.”

The holidays are there to remind the Nation of Israel that they all used to be slaves and thus there is no real distinction between them.

However, this lack of distinction is in direct contradiction to one of the largest themes of Vayikra, that of the distinction between different groups within Israel, the priests and the laymen. Within Parashat Emor itself this is a major theme. All of chapter 21 and the first sixteen verses of chapter 22 of Sefer Vayikra discuss the additional restrictions on the Kohanim as a factor of special status, distinct from that of the average Israelite. Their added restrictions cover not just the rituals of the Mishkan that they are in charge of, but also other aspects of their lives like who they can marry and under what circumstances they are allowed to become impure. This distinction, and so many others, permeates all of Sefer Vayikra, and much of the rest of the Torah, yet stands in direct contradiction to the ideas of Lex Talionis and the Regalim.

There are two values in the Torah, “Distinction/Purpose” and “Equality”, that stand in direct contradiction to one another. This contradiction does not have a resolution. Instead, the laws and ideology of the Torah exist in a state of tension. Neither value is compromised on, nor is either one victorious, on the large scale. Instead, certain laws promote one value and certain laws promote the other. There is no compromise on the level of the ideas; compromise on the practical level happens perforce. This method can serve as model for dealing with tension and competing values in the modern world. We don’t have to give up on values just because they’re not our only values. Being positive and accepting of all peoples, and treating them equally regardless of the differences between them, is a positive value. But so is recognition of those differences and of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, and treating them accordingly. Neither ideal should be compromised as a general principle. In each individual situation one ideal, practically speaking, must be compromised on. However, that does not mean that we have to give up on our ideals, or ever stop striving to live up to them as much as possible.

 

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] The Oral Torah makes it clear that the Torah intended Lex Talionis non-literally, and instead intends monetary compensation, but this is also clear from a close examination of the places it occurs in the biblical text. To use the story of the Blasphemer as an example, it’s clear from here that the law is not meant to be understood literally from the simple fact that it’s not employed literally here. He blasphemes god’s name and is killed as punishment. This is not exactly “an eye for an eye.” Clearly the literal meaning is not intended.