Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.


Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.


[1] Hebrew text and translation from

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law


Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

The Mishnah (Pesahim 116a) states that the discussion of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder must “begin with disgrace(גנות) and end with glory(שבח).” The exact understanding of this “disgrace” is the subject of a debate between Rav and Shmuel, with Rav saying that the requirement to start with disgrace is fulfilled by reciting a verses from Sefer Yehoshua (24:2-4) detailing how Bnei Yisrael are descended from idolaters like Terah before they ever went down to Egypt, and Shmuel saying that it is fulfilled by reciting a verse from Sefer Devarim (6:21, 5:15) discussing how Bnei Yisrael were slaves to Paroah in Egypt before ‘א redeemed them.

In the liturgy of our Haggadah we include both passages, making sure we have all of the disgrace covered[1]. This “disgrace to glory” structure dictates the nature of the story of the Exodus from Egypt that is discussed at the seder, ensuring that we cover the full story of ‘א rescuing Bnei Yisrael. This narrative makes it clear just what depths he pulled them out of, whether the spiritual depths of the post-Bavel depths of Bereishit 11 or the physical degradation of the slavery in Egypt. Against the background of this “disgrace” it becomes clear just how great the redemption from Egypt was.

However, the “disgrace to glory(שבח)” structure does more than just give the necessary limits of the recounting of the Exodus. Thanks to the multiplicity of meanings of the word “שבח,” it also creates the basic structure of Magid, the “retelling” portion of the seder. Maggie starts with calls for anyone who even now is in a state of “disgrace” to come and join our table. Then through the retelling of the redemption we pass through the glory of ‘א’s deeds to the point where we burst forth with joyous praise(שבח) of  ‘א with the beginning of Hallel (which we return to after the meal). Thus the experience of fulfilling the seder takes a person from one end to the other of the mishnaic dictum to “begin with disgrace and end with praise(שבח).”

The continuation of the Mishna tells us that out to expound upon the verse, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Devarim 26:5), and in fact a large portion of Magid is dedicated to midrashic exegeses of that whole passage from Devarim (26:5-11). What makes this passage an interesting choice is that it is not itself a passage from the Exodus story. If the goal of the seder, and Magid in particular, is to recount the story of the Exodus, the it would seem more logical to choose a passage from the first half of Sefer Shemot where the Exodus is actually narrated by the Torah. Certainly there is no lack of passages from the Exodus that simply cry out for exposition. Instead, the Mishna says we just delve into the passage recited by a farmer upon bringing the Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the temple. Upon bringing the fruits, the farmer recites a length retelling of the history of Bnei Yisrael from Avraham through the Exodus to their arrival from Egypt into the fruitful land of Canaan. By picking this passage the Haggadah directs our attention not to the Exodus but to the recounting of it.

While this at first glance seems strange, it finds a strong resonance within the other passages of Magid. The passages that Rav and Shmuel each chose are not from Bereishit 11 or from the slavery of Sefer Shemot, but from Yeshoshua’s discussion of Terah and Sefer Devarim’s  to tell your son that we were slaves to Paroah. Thus Rav and Shmuel are also focusing not on retelling the Exodus but on retelling the Retelling of the Exodus. Many of the other passages of Magid are even more explicit in this focus on “retelling the retelling.” In Magid we recount the story of the sages who stayed up all night talking about the Exodus, we discuss the debate between R’ Zoma and the Sages about when you have an obligation to talk about the Exodus, and we talk about the exegesis of the sages regarding how the plagues add up. The passages in which we retell the retelling of the Exodus story are a huge portion of the liturgy of Magid, almost outweighing the passages where we simply retell the story of the Exodus. In speaking these passages we affirm our place in a chain of speakers, in the line of “retellers” going all the way back to first generation out of Egypt.

This chain of speakers itself participates in the narrative of Yetsiat Metsrayim, in the journey from disgrace to glory and praise. In speaking the words of the seder we place ourselves in a chain that stretches back to the Exodus itself, a line of people who have experienced and told of ‘א glorious redemption, from generation to generation, heading to a time when the whole world will sing out in praise of ‘א.

[1] It is possible that the halakhah was decided like Rav and we just have both passages anyway. For more on that, see here.

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

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun,

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

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

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

Hanukah And The Other

Hanukah And The Other

While the holiday of Hanukah is perhaps the most popular of the jewish holidays among American Jewry (by which I mean to include even the non-Orthodox), it was not always so. Hazal seem to have had a rather ambivalent approach to Hanukah. This is in large part manifest in a general lack of discussion about the holiday. Hanukah is mentioned a total of three times in the entirety of the Mishnah, and while the gemara discusses it somewhat more often, it is still scarce. There is also a notable lack of a ‘Masekhet Hanukah,” while Purim, the other non-biblical holiday, does have its own masekhet. Further ambivalence can be seen in the way Hazal related to the Hashmonaim, the heroes of the Hanukah story. Hazel critiqued the Hashmonaim on a number of issues, such as the unification of the Priesthood and the Kingship, but also for things like the way they wrote contracts. Moreover, the Hashmonaim often took license in their war against the Mityavnim, the Hellenized Jews, from the biblical zealot Pinhas. In midrashic explications of the story of Pinhas, Hazal often criticize Pinhas, or make it clear that his actions were less than desirable. Thus the Hashmonaim were basing themselves off a zealotry that Hazal were already less than thrilled about, even without the problems of the kingship. The largest question this raises, though there are several, is why did Hazal then see fit to include Hanukah in the holidays of the Jewish People? Megillat Ta’anit records a long list of second temple holidays and fast days and the only two that we keep are Purim and Hanukah. Thus the question of why we celebrate Hanukah when it was not particularly popular in Hazal, needs an answer.

Hanukah has only one mitsvah, lighting the candles, and it is through this mitsvah that we can perhaps explain the significance of the inclusion of Hanukah among the Jewish Holidays. In order to properly understand the mitsvah of lighting candles for Hanukah, it is instructive to compare them with another mitsvah of candle-lighting, the candles of Shabbat. Like the candles of Hanukah, the Shabbat candles are a rabbinic command. However, where the Hanukah candles are commemorative in nature, the Shabbat candles are functional. The candles of Shabbat ensure the existence of three specific aspects of Shabbat: Respectfulness (כבוד), Enjoyment (עונג), and Harmony in the house (שלום בית). The candles are there to ensure that there is enough light to see by, whether during meals or just when walking around. The functional nature of the Shabbat candles has halakhic ramifications. If a person is away from home and staying in a place where they have their own room, then she has an obligation to ensure that it is lit well enough to see where they are going. That said, if there is a place where the person does not want the light, such as a bedroom, then there is no obligation to light there. The Shabbat candles are there for the benefit of the people in the house, not as a goal in and of themselves.

The candles of Hanukah are just the opposite. As opposed to the raw functionality of the Shabbat candles, “these candles are holy, and we have no permission to use them beyond looking at them.” Where the whole purpose of the Shabbat candles is for our use, we are forbidden to make any use of the Hanukah candles. They are holy, and they burn just to burn. Moreover, the one purpose they might seem to have, publicizing the miracle of Hanukah, is intended in an opposite manner from the purpose of the Shabbat candle. The Shabbat candles are intended to illuminate the house for the benefit of the people inside it. The publication of the miracle of Hanukah is primarily intended not for the people in the house but for the people outside of it, to the point where the ideal placement of the chanukiah is not inside the house at all, but rather just outside the door. The Hanukah candles are not about those lighting them, nor about improving their lives. Whereas the Shabbat candles increase and improve our sense of comfort and homeyness, the Hanukah candles create a sense of estrangement and otherness.

The Hanukah candles represent a celebration of otherness, of the fact that not everything needs to fit into our lives and our patterns in order for it to be included, and this is exactly what is  happening with the inclusion of Hanukah in the system of Jewish Holidays. Hazal took a holiday that they would not necessarily have created on their own, and brought it within the system of Jewish Holidays, and then they made sure it’s main ritual would demonstrate what they had done. Their willingness to accept that which is other, that which doesn’t work exactly as they would have it, ought to be an inspiration for us. They didn’t pretend to agree with everything about Hanukah. Before Hazal emphasized the miracle of the oil, all versions of the Hanukah story focus on the military victory or the rededication of the Temple. Hazal decided the focus should be on the miracle of the oil, something they felt more befitting of non-Hashmonaic Judaism. We don’t have to agree with everyone, nor do we even have to pretend to. But that isn’t permission to exclude them and push them away. In light of the otherness of the Hanukah candles, with which we celebrate the grace and presence of ‘א, we can embrace those who are different.

Sukkot 5775 – Getting Out Of Our Narratives

כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל


The mitsvah to dwell in sukkot for seven days comes Vayikra 23:42, part of the greater description of the holiday of Sukkot in verses 33-43, probably the largest description of Sukkot in the Torah. It’s also the only such description that includes a reason for the mitsvah to dwell in sukkot. “In order that your generations will know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael are commanded to dwell in sukkot in order to mimic and recreate the experience of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. This experience that is characterized mainly by two trends, Bnei Yisrael complaining about not suffering due to their not being in Egypt any more, and ‘א providing Bnei Yisrael with sustenance throughout their journeys in the wilderness.

Throughout their travels in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly complain that they wish they could return to Egypt, or that things were better in Egypt. The first time is just after the splitting of the sea. “If only we had died by the hand of ‘א in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we ate bread to satiation; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly through starvation” (Shemot 16:3). This is the first of many times such a complaint occurs due to a lack of food or water. A totally different motivation for such a complaint appears in Bamidbar 16, in the rebellion of Dathan and Aviram. “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:13). This complaint is not about a lack of food, but about Moshe being unsuitable as a leader. They go so far as to call Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase otherwise only used to refer to the Land of Israel. Seeing as their experience in Egypt was one of crushing labor and abject slavery, it is difficult to understand why they would desire so strongly to go back to it. However, this becomes a little clearer when understood in light of the post-modern concept of a narrative.

The word “narrative” refers to a story, but in the post-modern sense it refers more particularly to the stories by which people define their lives. These stories give a context within which the events and occurrences of their lives can be understood. It gives people a framework within which to choose what course of action they should pursue. The historical perspective of Tanakh, from the beginning of Creation in Sefer Bereishit to the messianic visions of the prophets, is a narrative within which Bnei Yisrael understand the meaning of the events that happen to them. This is perhaps the greatest function of the prophets, telling Bnei Yisrael that the major events they undergo, such as the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, are not random event, but are part of a larger story and make sense when viewed as such. One of the most notable effects of the loss of prophecy has been a disconnect from Tanakh’s historical narrative. Without a prophet, Bnei Yisrael had no way of knowing with certainty the significance of any occurrence, but can only try and fit it into the context of Tanakh’s historical vision.

Returning to Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness, their complaints about no longer being in Egypt can be understood in terms of a loss of narrative. In Egypt, they knew what story they were participating in, even if it was an unpleasant one. They knew who was in charge and why, they knew where their food and water came from, and they knew what they were supposed to do when. Then ‘א took them out of Egypt, and they knew none of those things. When they didn’t have food, they complained that they once knew where their food came from, and when they felt they had been lead badly, they challenged the source of the authority of their leader. They had lost their Egypt-Narrative and until they would enter the Land of Israel, they were a little lost.

The second typifier of Bnei Yisrael’s wilderness experience was that they were totally sustained by ‘א. When they needed food, he gave them Manna (Shemot 16:4-5) and Quail (Shemot 16:12-15). Their leadership was sent by ‘א, and when they doubted this, they were reminded via miracles (Bamidbar 16:28; 17:16-26). Their garments were miraculously sustained by ‘א, neither wearing out nor being outgrown (Devarim 8:4). Even their living-spaces were given to them by ‘א (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael’s entire wilderness experience was defined by the way they lived their lives cradled in the hand of ‘א.

On sukkot Bnei Yisrael were thrust out of our normal, everyday, narratives and pushed into the wilderness. Every year, as they were gathering in their harvest (Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:13), Bnei Yisrael were reminded that they do not survive by their produce alone, but by the word of ‘א (Devarim 8:3). Sukkot is a week where we step out of our normal stories, our routines and procedures, and remember the truth that these stories obscure, that we are not independent, that our stories are conditional and dependent, that the lives we build were built with the power that ‘א gives us (Devarim 8:17-18).

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

[2] While they received the Torah long before they entered the Land of Israel, many if not most of the mitsvot apply only when in the Land of Israel (never mind the opinion of Ramban that the mitsvot only apply inside the Land of Israel). Receiving the Torah did help Bnei Yisrael’s mindset somewhat, but that is part of a different discussion.

[3] The exact nature of the “sukkot” that ‘א caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in is subject to Rabbinic debate, with R’ Eliezer understanding them as booths such as Bnei Yisrael build today, and with R’ Akiva understanding them as the Clouds of Glory. For an excellent discussion of how R’ Akiva’s view fits with peshat, and of the symbolism behind both views, see this essay by R’ Prof. Jeffrey L. Rubinstein.

Yom HaAtsma’ut 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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