Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Terumah 5774 – Mount Sinai and the Miskhan: On the Actualization of Beliefs

וְאֶל הָאָרֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ

Parashat Terumah is the first of five parashot, forming the last section of Sefer Shemot, which discuss the building of the Mishkan and the episode of the Golden Calf. These parashot are the setting of a famous argument[1] between Rashi and Ramban regarding the timing of the Golden calf versus the command to build the Mishkan. Rashi, embracing the principle that the Torah prioritizes themes over chronology in terms of structure[2], says that the parashot of Terumah and Teztaveh belong after the episode of the Golden Calf, while Ramban consistently avoids use of this principle[3] and so says that the parashot are in their correct chronological order. This debate affects the placement of the command to build the mishkan, placing it either before or after the Golden Calf. Rashi says that it comes afterwards, as Rashi sees the Mishkan as an atonement for the Golden Calf, while Ramban says that it comes before. However, their debate does not change purpose of the Mishkan. Determining the purpose of the Mishkan requires explaining why this series of parashot, start to finish, occurs here. If the command to build the Mishkan occurred after the Golden Calf, then why was it moved to its current location, just after the Revelation at Sinai? And if it occurred in its current location, then why was the command given here, just after the Revelation at Sinai?

Ramban says that the purpose of the Mishkan is to be the site of continuous revelation. It is a portable Mount Sinai. This is obvious not only from the verse, “And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel”[4] (Shemot 25:22), but also from the various parallels between the Mishkan and Mount Sinai. ‘א descends on both of them in a cloud (Shemot 24:15-18 and 40:34-38). Each is divided into three sections; for the Mishkan it is the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Hodesh HaKedoshim; for Mount Sinai it was the foot of the mountain, the mountain itself, and the summit. Finally, the luchot are given on Mount Sinai, and from then on they rest in the Mishkan. Thus Ramban is undoubtedly correct, and while Rashi does not explain why he thinks the command to build the Mishkan was placed there, it is reasonable to assume that he would agree with Ramban on that point[5]. However, the idea that the Mishkan will serve as the site of continuous revelation is only mentioned after the creation of the Aron and the Kaporet, the specific location from which ‘א would then speak to Moshe, and so seems to be a function of the Aron/Kaporet rather than the Mishkan. Moreover, this all seems both a little complex and unnecessary for the purposes of revelation. Not only would all the prophets after they enter the land get prophecy outside the Mishkan/Mikdash, Moshe himself has already done so many times. While Revelation occurs in the Mishkan, it is not a function of the Mishkan, nor is it dependent on it. What, then, is the purpose of the Mishkan?

The answer to this question is actually rather obvious, but it hardly clear. In the very beginning of the commands and instructions regarding building the Mishkan ‘א says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). Thus it would seem the purpose of the Mishkan is in order to enable ‘א to dwell amongst Bnei Yisrael. But how does it do that? ‘א is everywhere, so what good does building a tent do? The answer lies in the details of the Mishkan, all of which enable the fulfillment of its purpose.

The primary thing that Judaism says about ‘א, one of the few things agreed upon by all branches of Judaism, is that ‘א is one.The Mishkan expresses that in many ways, starting with the beautifully unitary structure of the Mishkan, especially the exact cube shape of the Kodesh HaKedoshim. More importantly, the text itself goes out of its way to emphasize this. “That the tabernacle may be one whole”(Shemot 26:6). “And couple the tent together, that it may be one”(Shemot 26:11). These and numerous other verses attest to the fact that the Mishkan was meant to embody the idea of ‘א’s oneness.

Another strong theme in the Mishkan is that of a graduated approach to Kedushah. In addition to the three-tiered breakdown of the area of the Mishkan into the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the material structure of the Mishkan itself creates this delineation. The only metal used outside the Kodesh is copper, which is also used for the sockets for the entrance to the Kodesh, and for the clasps of the upper cloth covering the Kodesh. The sockets for the walls of the Kodesh and the entrance to the Kodesh HaKedoshim are silver. The clasps for the lower cloth covering the Kodesh are gold, along with all of the vessels in Kodesh. However, only the Aron HaEdut, in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, is covered in gold both inside and out. Thus the three zones are clearly delineated. This delineation emphasizes another very important idea about ‘א: His Kingship. A king by definition cannot just be approached by any person at any time. Specific people can approach the King, but even them only at specific times. Only the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim, and then only on Yom Kippur. This recognition of the absolute majesty of ‘א is an incredibly important idea. In the early centuries of the Common Era this idea made Jewish Merkabah mysticism unique among the various mystical trends in the world, emphasizing not the wondrous spiritual worlds one could explore, but rather the difficult and elaborate process of approaching the King of All Kings[6]. This idea is central to the relationship of Man to ‘א, and it is built into the very physical structure of the Mishkan.

In opposition to these gradations is the relation of Bnei Yisrael to the Mishkan. It would be easy to read this gradation as a function of elitism on the part of the priests, reserving the close encounter with ‘א for themselves. However, the Mishkan in its function and its origin rejects this idea. When gathering the materials from which the Mishkan will be made, ‘א asks “of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering” (Shemot 25:2). The Mishkan is a product of the nation as a whole. In terms of function, not only is the Mishkan the place where all of Bnei Yisrael come to serve ‘א, even when Moshe would hear ‘א’s voice from the Kodesh HaKodeshim, one of the more exclusive occurrences in the Mishkan, the Torah specifically states that this was it would be for the sake of all Israel (Shemot 25:22). Not only does this mean that the graduated structure of the Mishkan was a matter of respect rather than elitism, it also demonstrates the importance of equality and connectivity in the Nation of Israel.

The entire Mishkan is built around the Aron. The concentric quadrilaterals get smaller and smaller, with the Aron being the final, inner-most, rectangle. This central position in any other temple would be occupied by the god of that temple, by the deity of the local people. In the Mishkan this position place is filled not by ‘א, but by His Word, and more specifically, by his Law. While ‘א’s voice would come to the Kaporet for Moshe to hear it, the main purpose of the Aron HaEdut was to hold the Luchot HaEdut, and thus these remained constantly at the heart of the Mishkan. When Moshe first writes out a complete Torah-scroll in Sefer Devarim it is put in the Aron (Devarim 31:26). The centrality of the Law here cannot be over emphasized. While the degree to which Judaism cares about the beliefs of individual Jews has been debated constantly throughout the centuries, the very fact that such a debate was possible tells you about how central the Law is. Only when the law take center stage can the necessity of beliefs be questioned. Few, however, have been the voices in the Jewish Tradition that argued for a total lack of inherent beliefs in Judaism, with perhaps the most famous being Moses Mendelssohn. The reason that the centrality of the Law never eradicated the Torah’s inherent beliefs is that the Law functions on a large scale the same way as all the minutia of the Mishkan. The same way the very fixings of the Mishkan all express greater ideas and beliefs, so too all of the details of the Law. ‘א’s Law is about living ideas in everyday life.

Judaism doesn’t care about beliefs in the abstract. If the Torah wanted simply to convey certain ideas, it could have written them down in a book and done away with the rules and the narratives. But a book of ideas cannot tell you about what it means to live in context of ‘א. Only the stories of those who lived in relation to him can do that. Only ‘א’s Law enables you to live ‘א and His values into your life. And perhaps this, more than anything, explains the reason the command for the Mishkan was given right after the Revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, Bnei Yisrael experienced this supremely powerful event. They experienced something that wasn’t just once-in-a-lifetime, it was once-in-history. The question that has to be asked after such an event is how do you keep it relevant? How do you turn that peak experience into a living reality every day of your life? You have to have a framework of actions that are based off of and express that experience. The Mishkan not only serves that purpose in terms of expressing individual ideas, it also expresses that most basic idea that underwrites all of Judaism from that moment on: ‘א dwells in the life of Man.

[1] For more on this debate, see R’ Menachem Leibtag’s thorough shiur on it here.

[2] In Hebrew: אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה

[3] He is unable to avoid it entirely, as Bamidbar 1 and Bamidbar 9 occur in the second and first months of the second year in the desert respectively. Rather he simply minimizes it as much as possible.

[4] Translations from

[5] Menachem Leibtag, ibid.

[6] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Ch. 1

Parashat Mishpatim 5774 – Breaking Down the Moral/Ritual Divide

וְאַנְשֵׁי קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי

Parashat Mishpatim is the first legal compilation in the Torah. Previously Bnei Yisrael received single commandments here and there, but never before did they receive such a large body of laws all at once. Not only that, but all the commandments that Bnei Yisrael received prior to Parashat Mishpatim are just that, commandments. They aren’t laws. Parashat Mishpatim is the beginning of the Torah’s legal system. Important as that idea is, it brings up a lot of questions, which quickly become obvious upon examination of the various sections of the text.[1]

The first section of the parasha, spanning from Shemot 21:1 through 22:16 (henceforth I), discusses interpersonal laws. There is a considerable range of topics, including slavery, property damage, and assault, to name a few. The unifying factor of all of these Laws is their If-Then formula. If X, Then Y. “If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.”[2] (Shemot 21:2) “And if a man smite his bondman, or his bondwoman, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be punished.” (21:20). This is a classic form of legal codification, case law. It’s meant to be used by courts to decide cases and mete out punishments. It’s very practical.

The second section is at once very similar and quite different. 22:17-19 (henceforth II) still discusses laws are applied by a court system, so they’re still practical laws. They are not, however, case law. “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live. Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death. He that sacrificeth unto the gods, save unto the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (22:17-19) Notice the lack of the aforementioned If’-Then formula. In it’s place we find very basic statements involving misdeeds and their consequences. These are imperatives, and thus slightly less practical, though still applicable by a human court.

The next section goes from 22:20 through 23:9 (henceforth III), and though it breaks down into smaller subsections, it’s nature as a unified literary unit is confirmed by the parallel between 22:20, “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” and 23:9, “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This section includes many vary diverse categories of laws. Verses 22:20-26 (henceforth IIIa) deal specifically with the proper treatment of the poor and needy. The Torah makes it clear that not only should these people not be oppressed, we must go out of our way to take care of them (22:25-26). 22:27-30 (henceforth IIIb) is the next sub-unit, and represents a shift from the previous parts of the parashah. As opposed to the very socially-oriented nature of the laws in I, II, and IIIa, these four verses deal with four different obligations between Man and ‘א, such as the sanctity of the first-born (22:28-29) and a dietary proscription (22:30). 23:1-9 (henceforth IIIc )forms the last sub-unit, dealing with the importance of the maintaining justice and honesty within the context of the legal system. So extreme is this need for righteousness in the judicial system that judges are warned against bending the law in favor of the poor and needy, who in all other parts of the law seem to get extra-special treatment. While this is a step back towards the social orientation seen previously, it also discusses the laws of the legal system itself, very different from the other social laws. Taken as a whole, III continues the new trend of legal imperatives rather than case law. However, whereas the laws of II are enforceable by a court, the laws of III are not. Most of these laws would rather be enforced by ‘א, something suggested by “If thou afflict them in any wise–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.” (22:22-23) and “it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.” (22:26). In this manner III completely departs from the preceding sections.

The final legal pericope goes from 23:10 through 23:19 (henceforth IV). As opposed to even the mixed composition of III, IV is totally composed on laws relating to Man’s obligations to ‘א. Specifically, it deals with the command for both the Sabbath (23:12) and the Sabbatical year (23:10-11), it discusses the three main holidays of the Jewish calendar (23:14-17), and a few other ritual laws besides. Gone are the case laws, the If-Then formula has disappeared without a trace. These are not practical laws, laid down for the use of the courts, rather these are societal imperatives. IV and I are so different that one would never assume that they go together if seen out of context. So why are they put together? What is the unifying theme or purpose of this whole code?

These laws are capped by ‘א enumerating the manner in which He will guide Bnei Yisrael to the Land of Israel and help them conquer it, as well as the religious commands and prohibition this will entail (23:20-33). Then, in 24:3-4, Moshe tell all the people these laws whereupon they accept the laws upon themselves and Moshe writes the laws in the “Book of the Covenant” (24:7). This is followed by a celebratory ceremony wherein the people famously accept this covenant upon themselves by saying, “All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey”(ibid.). These two themes, ‘א guiding the people and the Covenant between them, recall a moment from before the Revelation at Sinai. In Shemot 19:3-8 ‘א tells the people that He took them out of egypt and will continue to guide them (19:5) and that if they keep his covenant then they will be his special people (19:5-6). The people of course say yes (19:8). This event is the beginning of the creation of the Covenant that is sealed in the ceremony of 24:4-11, and all the laws mentioned in between are an explication of the verse, “if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant,” (19:5).

Thus the unifying element in I, II, III, and IV is that they are the stipulations of ‘א covenant with his people. This the basic framework of the laws that make Bnei Yisrael ‘א’s nation. Essentially, these laws determine the character of ‘א’s nation. That much is obvious. But what is this character? As noted above the individual sections of this law code differ greatly, and so that is less obvious. However, a closer analysis of the varying sections reveals some very important ideals, not just in how they are similar, but also in how they are different.

Beyond the textual breakdown, these laws can be broken down in a few other ways, using the characteristics mentioned above. The first is in terms of who metes out consequences. The consequences of I and II are enacted by human courts, while III and IV are punishable only by ‘א. Thus responsibility in the nation of ‘א is both vertical and responsible. The people all stand together at the bottom of the mountain and ‘א descends upon it. The second way of dividing it up is in terms of case law and imperatives. Of all the sections, only I  is composed of case laws. II, III, and IV are all imperatives. The difference between a case law and an imperative is that while the case law is meant to be practically applied, that is simply not possible by an imperative. Instead, imperatives are meant to be personally motivated, and tell us something about what the values of a society are supposed to be. Thus a quick examination of the imperatives in II, III, and IV is in order.

The first obvious break down that must be noted is that both Ritual and Societal-Ethical values are represented in the imperatives. Specifically, II, IIIb, and IV all deal with rituals, while IIIa and IIIc deal with morals. However, this picture is somewhat superficial. A closer look ritual commands of IIIb and IV shows that while on the whole the commands found therein are rituals, many of the details given are more concerned with morals. 22:27 deals with how we relate to Leadership. 22:28-29 are about paying your dues and the dedication of our firstborns to ‘א. Verse 22:30 directly connects holiness with making sure that the meat we consume does not die a violent death. Thus part and parcel of the ritual commands of IIIb are more socially-oriented values, a trend continued in IV. 23:12 depicts the reason for desisting from labor on Shabbat as being for the rest and refreshment of your animals and slaves. 23:14-17 depicts the holidays as being not about individual celebration, but about all of the nation being directed towards ‘א together. The Sabbatical year is explicitly for the purpose of taking care of the poor (23:11). These seemingly ritually-oriented commandments all have moral values behind them as well.

Thus, much like the loci of responsibility, the values of ‘א’s nation are complex. Not only are these laws as a whole both moral and ritual in nature, the same can be said of individual laws. The moral and the ritual are two sides of the same coin. We are responsible to each other as much as we are responsible to ‘א. We not only have to be both religious and moral on a personal level, we also have to be both on a national level. And it’s not enough to do perform both moral and ritual acts, but we also have to aware of the ritual nature of our moral deeds and the moral character of our rituals.

[1] This devar torah is based heavily on Menachem Leibtag’s and Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus.

[2] Translations from

Parashat Yitro 5775 – When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in Relation to the Law

When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in relation to the Law

Leading up to the Revelation at Har Sinai, the people are commanded not to approach the mountain (Shemot 19:12-13). Bizarrely, right before the ten commandments, perhaps the most pivotal moment of  Sefer Shemot, Moshe is commanded to once again tell the people to stay away from the mountain (19:21-24). While superficially redundant, this second command differs from the first in that it refers not only to “the people” but also to “the priests that approach God” (19:22). This immediately presents a problem as the priests (כהנים) that the Torah normally speaks of, Aharon and his sons, have not been appointed yet, nor has the Mishkan, their place of work, been built yet, nor have the relevant laws even been given yet. Though there are multiple approaches within the traditional commentators when it comes to understanding this phrase, we will focus on the rather unique approach of R’ Hezekiah ben Manoah (more commonly known as the Hizkuni). In order to fully understanding why he chose the approach that he did, we will first look at some of the more common understandings, enabling us to appreciate the unique and powerful message of the Hizkuni’s approach.

The most common understanding of the “priests that approach God” is that they are the firstborns of the Israelite nation. This approach originates in the gemara (Bavli, Zevahim, 115b), and is taken by R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, and Rabbeinu Behaye, as well as being mentioned as a possibility in the Ohr HaHayyim and the more modern Daat Mikra commentary. This interpretation is based on a few factors. First is the dedication of the firstborns to ‘א in Shemot 13, as a consequence of ‘א saving them from the death of the firstborns in Egypt. Perhaps more crucial though is the replacement of the firstborns with the Leviim in Bamidbar 3 (mentioned again in Bamidbar 8). The Leviim are dedicated to the work of ‘א’s Sanctuary, the Mishkan (Bamidbar 18:6). This implies that, before they were replaced by the Leviim, the firstborns were in charge of the work of the mishkan. However, this approach suffers from several problems. First is the understanding of the phrase “that approach God.” Ibn Ezra mentions two understandings of this phrase. The first is that this “approach” is their position during the Revelation at Sinai, that the firstborns will be standing closer to the mountain than the rest of the Israelites, though still beyond the border mentioned in Shemot 19:12-13. The problem with this is that the context of the phrase “that approach God” is the command for the priests to stay beyond the fence, implying that for some reason the firstborn would think they do not need to stay beyond the border. Thus the command has to be in response to something that happened in the past that would give the priests this impression. This is presumably what motivates Ibn Ezra’s second understanding, that the “approach to God” described in this verse is a reference to the priests bringing sacrifices on the altar that Moshe built after the war with Amalek. While this is certainly possible, and the altar was built just two chapters previous to our verse making it somewhat contextual, it suffers from not being explicit in the text. Without any explicit textual mention of sacrifices being brought on the altar, it is more likely that the altar was built as a memorial and as an act of gratitude to ‘א, in the manner of the Avot (cf. Bereishit 12:7-8, 13:18, 33:20, 35:7). However the larger issue with understanding the “priests” as the firstborn is that when the sanctified firstborn are replaced, it is not by the priests, but by the Leviim, so to say that they are priests here in Shemot 19 would be a little strange.

Though mentioned by fewer commentators, there is an approach that avoids this issue. Both Rabbeinu Behaye and the Ohr HaHayyim mention the possibility that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19 are the sons of Aharon, who will in the future be appointed as priests. This however suffers from the same lack of precedent as the previous interpretation. Simply put, before Aharon’s sons are explicitly appointed as priests in Sefer Vayikra, they have no reason to think they should stand closer to the mountain than anyone else, and so it is unlikely that they would have to be told not to do so.

This brings us to the comment of the Hizkuni. The Hizkuni actually presents two possibilities. His first suggestion makes use of the initial understanding, that the priests are the firstborns, but changes it in a way that avoids the problematic lack of precedent. Hizkuni says that it was the 70 Elders that were firstborns.[1] This has the advantage of the firstborns approach in that they are sanctified to ‘א, but it also has an explicit textual precedent. In Shemot 18, the chapter immediately prior to the one we’re dealing with, the Elders eat a meal with Yitro and Moshe “before ‘א” (18:12). While the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, it would seem to indicate a degree of closeness or familiarity with ‘א that would require them to be specifically told that they need to stay back. However, this approach can be understood in one of two ways. The first is that the “Elders” is essentially a subcategory of the “Firstborns.” While this is possible it is also somewhat strange, and not only because it is unlikely that every single one of the Elders was also a firstborn. More importantly, in this understanding the seventy Elders are firstborns, but there were plenty of other firstborns who aren’t in this category. Thus the fact that the Elders are firstborns would be merely coincidental, and it is strange that the Hizkuni would mention it. More likely is the second reading, that the Elders and the Firstborns are two separate but identical categories, both of which contributed to them being called “priests.” Thus both the sanctification to ‘א and the eating before Him are significant. This too however suffers from a strangeness, namely that not only would all of the Elders be firstborns, but that there would only be 70 firstborns in a group with 600,000 men. This is likely what prompted Hizkuni to offer his second, more original, understanding.

Hizkuni’s second suggestion is that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19:22 are the Judges and Officers appointed in Shemot 18. While his assigning of the term “priests” to the judges is quite original, this understanding has a certain logic to it, as Hizkuni explains. As support for this approach, Hizkuni quotes Devarim 1:17, “for the judgment is God’s.” Thus their very nature as judges has a certain logic to it. Meanwhile, Sefer Devarim also conflates the priests with the teachers of the Law (31:11, 33:10), a job specifically referenced in context of the appointment of the Judges in Shemot 18 (vss.16, 20). So while the priest would be the teachers once they get into the land, Hizkuni sees the teachers as the priests before the giving of the Torah. Their special positions as teachers and Judges makes them automatically closer to ‘א , not to mention it separates them from the rest of the people who they would have seen as students. This alone might have been reason enough for them to think that they should stand closer to the Revelation at Sinai, but, as Hizkuni points out, there is another reason for them to think that. The Revelation at Sinai is the revelation of the Law, and as those responsible for teaching and adjudicating that law, it is quite natural that they would have thought they should be closer. This would not have been a privilege, but a responsibility, to be as intimately involved in the giving of the law as possible. In this, however, they are rebuffed, as Moshe is specifically sent down to tell them that they are not separate, that the entire people is equal before the law. The only exception is Moshe (Aharon is included only in his capacity as Moshe’s spokesperson), who throughout Bnei Yisrael’s journey in the Wilderness receives the law via prophecy, while the judges in the desert and after Moshe’s death do not (I have written about this here). Thus, while the judges and teachers of the Law are close to ‘א, there is an important distance between them and the revelation of the Law.

The Hizkuni’s comment has an important lesson to teach us about the relationship between the people of Israel, rabbinic authority, and the Torah. We know from Devarim that, “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (33:4). The law was not given to its teachers, to the judges, but to the entirety of the people of Israel. Rabbinic authority is not inherent in the rabbis, but comes from their familiarity with the law; not from creating the law but from understanding it. Thus it is incumbent upon all of Israel, each and every one of us, to approach the Torah personally, not to depend upon rabbinic intermediaries. The Torah belongs to all of us, and we each have our own portion in it. It’s not enough to trust that someone knows the law, we have to understand and appreciate it ourselves.

[1] In this he combines Zevahim 115b with מכילתא בחדש פ״ד.

Parashat Yitro 5774 – What Happened At Sinai

אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם

Shemot 19 and 20 frame the picture of the Revelation at Sinai. ‘א descends on the mountain. Moshe goes up. The nation stands and shakes from afar. The scene in set and the air is full of tension. The Ten Commandments form the crescendo to the narrative. The people then express that they would rather have Moshe speak to them than ‘א, at which point ‘א gives Moshe a message for the nation. These chapters are convoluted and confusing in their entirety, causing the commentators to jump through serious hoops to find compelling explanations. The strangest part, however might be the blatant contradiction between ‘א’s actions in chapter 19 and his words in chapter 20. The Torah goes out of its way to describe ‘א descending on the mountain, presumably an important piece of the narrative, and yet in 20:19 He says, “You have seen that I spoke to you from Heaven.” So from where did ‘א speak to them? From the Mountain or from Heaven? This question, and its attending philosophical difficulties, is interesting enough on its own. However, the midrashic explanations of these events, including some very creative attempts to resolve this and other problems of the text, have some very powerful messages to teach us not just about the Revelation at Sinai but about our relationship with ‘א on the whole.

Perhaps the simplest resolution in provided by a midrash in the first few pages of Mesekhet Sukkah (TB Sukkah 5a). Based on the verse, “The Heavens are the Heavens of the LORD; but the Earth hath He given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16)[1], the gemara explains that ‘א’s presence never comes all the way down to Earth and Man can never go up to Heaven. Instead, when it says that ‘א descended on the mountain, His presence stopped a short distance above the mountain, close enough to be considered as having “descended on the mountain,” but still far enough away that ‘א could be considered to have spoken to the people “from Heaven.” This, however, stands in direct opposition to a large number of midrashim.

The Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael[2] resolves this problem by expanding the idea of ‘א descending on the mountain. Not only does ‘א descend, he brings Heaven with him. Thus ‘א descends on the mountain and is able to speak from Heaven simultaneously. This is very problematic in  regards to the midrash in Mesekhet Sukkah. If Moshe goes up on the mountain, and Heaven comes down to it, then has he gone up to Heaven? Perhaps, but regardless of that, ‘א and Heaven coming down to Earth would certainly clashes with the previous midrash.

This issue is further complicated Shemot 19:3 which reads, “And Moses went up to ‘א.” If Moshe went up to ‘א then presumably he left what is typically thought of as Earth and ascended to the divine realm. This can be explained as Moshe simply going to the location on the mountain from which ‘א had called to him, but many midrashim take it more literally. Not only do they describe Moshe ascending to Heaven, they give detailed accounts of what ensued there. Famously, the gemara depicts Moshe arguing with the Angels over who ought to receive the Torah (Shabbat 88b). Midrashic exegeses of the verses,“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O mighty one, thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty prosper, ride on.”(Tehillim 45:4-5)[3] and, “A wise man scaleth the city of the mighty, and bringeth down the stronghold wherein it trusteth.” (Mishlei 21:22)[4] depict Moshe not just as receiving the Torah, but as actively going up into the depths of Heaven and taking it himself.

A subtle prerequisite for the midrashim describing moshe going to heaven and taking the torah is the idea that the torah was already existing in heaven for moshe to go and take. One midrash not only says that the torah existed in heaven for 974 generations before the creation of the world,[5] but also that when moshe broke the Luchot the angels rejoiced, saying that the torah was now returned to them.[6] It’s also the basic assumption of the famous midrash stating that ‘א “looked into the torah and created the world,” much the way an architect has tablets and notebooks.[7] The Sifre says that ‘א agree to the suggestion of the daughters of Zelophechad because that’s how it was written before him in Heaven.[8] A Gaonic responsa uses the idea of ‘א having the torah written before him in heaven to explain why a person should not recite verses from the Torah without the text in front of him.[9]

These midrashim are not simply cute stories attempting to fill in the details of perhaps the most important moment in the history of Bnei Yisrael. These midrashim discuss the very natures of ‘א, Man, and Prophecy, the connection between us. The gemara in Sukkah takes a view that is highly transcendent. Man and ‘א are very separate, and but for the fact that there is revelation one would assume they were totally unconnected in any way. A contrast is found in the doctrine of Heaven’s Descent, wherein ‘א is manifest within this world. The lines are blurred. Similarly blurring is the conception of Moshe’s ascent to Heaven. In  a world where the Finite and Infinite can manifest in each other’s realms, it becomes difficulties to absolutely distinguish between them. This of course, is the upshot of the view of total separation.

Is prophecy something that happens to Man or something that happens to ‘א? Who is the active partner and who is the passive? When Moshe goes to Heaven and takes the Torah, then ‘א is not an active partner. This is mirrored in the later view of the Rambam where Moshe, via perfecting his intellect, unites with ‘א and learns the torah. Moshe is the active one. This is even clearer if the Torah is already a whole item in Heaven, just waiting for Moshe to come take it. The idea of Heaven’s descent makes ‘א the active one. He descends on the mountain to bring the Torah. Moshe need not even ascend, and in fact, may not have been up on the mountain at the time of the revelation. This view doesn’t see revelation as a function of man’s perfection, but rather as a matter of ‘א’s purpose. When ‘א wants revelation to happen then it does not matter whether or not man is worthy.[10]

So which is it? Does ‘א reveal himself or does man discover the divine truth? Is the Torah a document from beyond time, born of Heaven, or is it a crystallization of ‘א’s relationship with His people at the moment[11] of Revelation? The answer, as usual, is more complicated than the either/or. ‘א descends on the mountain, but Moshe also goes up. The people aren’t allowed to touch the mountain, but they do need to spend three days purifying themselves. ‘א and Man are searching for each other. The truth of revelation is that it happens between man and ‘א, sometimes one side is more active, sometimes the other, but the consistent factor is that of the relationship between them. Revelation requires relation. And this is the greatest message of the Revelation at Sinai, the clearest truth from amidst an otherwise obfuscated pericope: that ‘א and His people desire to be involved each with the other.

[1] Biblical translations from

[2] Bahodesh 4

[3] Midrash on Tehillim, ad loc.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati 20:4. Strikingly, some of these descriptions are actually quite violent.

[5] This is an idea found throughout midrashic literature, based on the idea that the Torah existed for 2000 generations before the Revelation at Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai occurs in the 26th generation recorded in the Torah, which mean the remaining 974 generations have to have been before Creation. Explanations of this idea have ranged from the midrash about ‘א creating and destroying worlds before creating this one (the Arizal) to this universe actually being nearly 15 billion years old (R’ Isaac of Acre and R’ Aryeh Kaplan). It may be more likely that the Revelation at Sinai happens in the 26th generation because that’s the numerical value of YHVH, the Ineffable Name of God, also revealed in the 26th generation.

[6] Midrash on Tehillim 28:6

[7] Bereishit Rabbah 1:4

[8] Sifre Pinhas 134

[9] Teshuvot HaGeonim, Shaarei Teshuva 352

[10] The Kabbalistic idea that Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the whole Torah, rather just what was fitting for them, is an interesting combination of these views, and opens the door to discussion of the fullness of the Torah being revealed at a later date, a titillating and dangerous concept.

[11] This might be rephrased as the question, “is the Torah Timeless or Timely?” and it has serious ramifications for the way we interpret the Torah, including the relevance of using Critical Literary  techniques and parallels to other Ancient Near Eastern texts.

Shemot 5774 – God of the Process

וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם פִּיךָ וְעִם פִּיהוּ

Parashat Shemot famously records not only Moshe’s first meeting with ‘א, but also his first instance of disagreeing with ‘א(Shemot 3-4)[1]. Moshe is told to be ‘א’s messenger is Egypt and he resists continuously, coming up with not one but four different protests against going. The last reason that Moshe gives for why he would not be a fitting messenger for ‘א is that he is “slow of speech, and of a slow tongue[2]”(4:10). ‘א responds, “Who has made man’s mouth? or who makes a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I the LORD?” (4:11), and that therefore Moshe should go and ‘א will be “with his mouth” and teach him what to say (4:12). Moshe suggests that ‘א just send someone else (4:13). At that point ‘א says that his brother Aharon can speak fine and is coming to meet him, so Moshe will tell Aharon what to say and Aharon will “be a mouth” for him (4:14-16). Convinced, Moshe goes to ask speak with his Father-in-Law before beginning his journey to Egypt.

The whole discussion between Moshe and ‘א is odd, in that Moshe is continuously fighting against ‘א’s word, but most bizarre is the back-and-forth on this last issue. While Moshe’s excuse of his inability to talk might be a good one, it ought to be totally negated by ‘א’s response. ‘א tells Moshe that He is the one in charge of who can speak and who can’t. Thus Moshe ought to realize that  if ‘א want’s Moshe to be able to speak then Moshe will be able to speak. That should be more than enough, but ‘א adds that he “will be with Moshe’s mouth” and “teach him what to say”. Instead of encouraging Moshe, Moshe understands from ‘א saying that He will “teach him what to say” that ‘א will not be fixing his speech issue (Ibn Ezra ad loc.). So Moshe tells ‘א that he should just send someone else, and ‘א becomes angry, responding that Aharon can speak and will therefore be the one to do the speaking. Moshe’s apparent confusion is understandable; If ‘א is not going to enable moshe to speak, then what is He saying in verse 11? The answer lies in the peculiar statement in the first half of verse 12, “I will be with your mouth.”

A simple reading would seem to indicate that “I will be with your mouth” is an extension of the idea from the preceding verse about how ‘א is in control of who can speak and who cannot, and that ‘א will enable Moshe to speak. But beyond the difficulty raised by the phrase “I will teach you what to say”, this is impossible in light of the second half of verse 15 (which essentially restates verse 12 but in reference to both Moshe and Aharon) “and I will be with your mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what you should do.” For ‘א to be with Moshe’s mouth cannot mean to enable him to speak if ‘א will also be with the mouth of Aharon who can already speak. So what does it mean?

Even where His power is absent, His concern is present[3].‘א does not always intervene. Sometimes when we feel our hands our tied and we just need some help, there is no help. In verse 11, ‘א is not telling Moshe that he will miraculously enable him to speak, he’s saying that Moshe is meant to have this difficulty in speaking. “I will be with your mouth” is coming to say that this isn’t because ‘א has abandoned him; ‘א is with him in his travail.

Rabbi Akiva said: Bnei Yisrael told ‘א, “[When you redeemed us from Egypt,] You [also] redeemed yourself,” for wherever Bnei Yisrael go into Exile, ‘א’s presence goes with them[4]. ‘א is not silent when we suffer[5], rather he suffers with us[6] (or is with us in our suffering, if you would prefer). ‘א is not only “God of the Good Times,” He is also “God of the Bad Times.” ‘א is with us when we are weak and when we are strong (Shemot 4:15).

However, this on it’s own is not satisfying, and really just pushes the question when it comes to the text of Parashat Shemot. If 4:11-12 really is saying that ‘א is with Moshe in his inability to talk, then why is that even necessary? Why not just skip to “Aharon will speak for you”? That’s the real answer to Moshe’s question. The answer lies in the idea of the process.

Nothing meaningful happens in an instant; Everything is a process[7]. Even according to the opinion that the entirety of the Torah was given at Har Sinai, it still comes with an Oral Torah[8] that allows it to develop into the beautiful and relevant Rabbinic system that we have today. So too with the exodus from Egypt. ‘א tells Moshe outright that this is not going to occur in the blink of an eye (Shemot 4:21-23)[9]. And so too in all of our lives. Nothing worth having is handed to us on a silver platter, and nothing worthwhile happens in an instant. But that doesn’t mean we are left to struggle through on our own. ‘א is always there, with us and for us, and so we do not struggle alone.

[1] This actually becomes the focus of a fascinating parallel in the biblical text. Moshe’s mother places him in a “תבה” in order to save him and keep him safe amongst the reeds. The only other place this word appears is by Noah, who also is kept safe on the water in a “תבה”. Though this occurs much later, Moshe is told, like Noah, that ‘א  plans to start over and that he will be the lone survivor. This is where the comparison becomes a contrast: Noah does nothing to save the people that ‘א has sentenced to destruction, whereas Moshe argues with ‘א and in the end is successful in saving the people.

This difference between someone who is a tzaddik, who “walks with ‘א”, and is worthy of being saved from the Flood to restart the world and someone who is right for the creation of  the Nation of ‘א is quite unexpected. Noah follows ‘א’s command to the letter, while Moshe argues with him. But that is exactly the point. Living in this world doesn’t mean just clinging to ‘א, it also means taking the values and wisdom that ‘א has given us to try and live by His word in this world. And sometimes that means fighting against a simple, black-and-white, interpretation of His Word.

[2] Translations from, with minor changes. Any significant changes will be noted.

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

[4] מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יד

[5] However, see מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח – מסכתא דשירה פרשה ח

[6] Shemot Rabbah 2:5

[7] אורות הקודש חלק ב, התעלות העולם

[8] However, See Sanhedrin 99a, “תניא אידך”

[9] The contrast between 4:1-9, particularly 4:8, and 4:30-31 would seem to suggest that Moshe does not really get this message, and this leads directly into his complaining to ‘א in 5:22-23 (R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petikhah, Parashat Shemot [Heb])