Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Ruling Desire and Desiring Rules

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan

On Shabbat Chol ha’Moed it is customary to read Shir ha’Shirim, a megillah of blooming flowers and blossoming love between two lovers. The are they/aren’t they protagonists are understood to represent God and the Jewish people. Throughout the megillah their metaphors and similes of passion never culminate in a final moment. Indeed, it ends with the Dod running away again.

What is the story of love meant to teach us about our relationship with God? The dialogue is limited to exchanges of compliments, but no conversation. Is this an ideal relationship? The most salient features of the megillah are passion and appreciation, but the megillah also serves an additional purpose in teaching about equality.

The presence of desire in a relationship creates an opportunity for unequal power dynamic. This is first expressed in the Torah in the aftermath of eating from the tree of knowledge. A punishment of Chava is “וְאֶל-אִישֵׁךְ, תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ, וְהוּא, יִמְשָׁל-בָּךְ”, that she will desire her husband, and he will rule her. Her desire creates a vulnerability that results in an imbalanced relationship. In this archetypical relationship in the Torah, there is a strain of closeness and distance, desire and inequality.

This idea appears again in Bereshit in the aftermath of Kayin killing his brother Hevel. God tells Kayin in regards to sin “הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ”, is it not so that if you are good you will overcome it, because sin is crouching at your doorstep, it desires you and you rule over it. Like a virus needs a host, sin desires the sinner, and thus Kayin can rule over it.

The final time this language is used in Tanach is in Shir ha’Shirim “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי, וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ”, I am to my beloved and he desires me. Here is a reversal from Bereshit. First, a person is speaking, whereas God was the speaker of both instances in Bereshit. The affected parties are the active ones, aware of their situation and standing. Second, in Shir ha’Shirim, the man desires the woman, the opposite from Chava and Adam. We would expect that this would make him the vulnerable party, at the woman’s mercy to rule over him. However, she is declaring herself to him, making herself equally vulnerable to him. Using her power, she abolishes the power imbalance. They are equal.

Tracing this concept of desire and power gives Shir ha’Shirim a culmination of a larger story, showing how two entities can be vulnerable and equal. God desires us to be His people, as evidenced in the Exodus story from Egypt and throughout our journey in the desert. At Har Sinai we are declared His nation and are sustained in the desert until delivered to Israel. We desire God to be our God, and demonstrate this through the fulfillment of mitzvot and learning His Torah. Pesach is a time when we review the roots of our relationship with God, and renew it by teaching our history to our families at the Seder. The story in Shir ha’Shirim never really ends, because we are still playing the parts in this relationship through the choices we make every day.

Betsy Morgan (SBM 2013, 2014) is a Junior at Drexel University studying Materials Science and Engineering. She is currently serving as the Gabbai for Drexel’s Orthodox Minyan Group and as a Campus Fellow for the Jewish Institute for Ideas and Ideals.

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Parshas Tzav/Shabbos HaGadol — Precious Preparations

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Alex Zaloum

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, we read:

“The Kohen shall don his fitted linen Tunic, and he shall don linen Michnasaim on his flesh; he shall raise the ashes which the fire will consume of the olah-offering on the Altar, and place it next to the Altar. He shall remove his garments and he shall wear other garments, and he shall remove the ashes to the outside of the camp, to a pure place” (Shemos 6:3-4).

Rashi gives a parable for why the kohen is instructed to wear a different set of clothes to remove the ashes from the Temple: “…[G]arments in which he cooked a pot for his master he should not pour in them a cup of wine for his master…”

One difference between cooking a pot of food and pouring a cup of wine is that that former is typically not done in the presence of the master, while the latter typically is. This difference is clearly borne out, as in haramas hadeshen (raising the ashes) the ash was placed “by the Altar” and in hotza’as hadeshen (removing the ashes) the ash was “removed outside the camp in a pure place.”

Another difference is that whereas pouring wine is a service in and of itself, cooking is merely a preparation for serving the master. So too, whereas haramas hadeshen is a mitzvah itself, hotza’as hadeshen is merely to ensure the Altar is cleared for further use (as Rashi to 6:4 indicates: “this is not a daily duty, but the raising of the ashes is a daily duty”).

But there is a third distinction: typically the servant who cooks is not the same servant who pours the wine. In fact, according to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, these two tasks were indeed performed by separate kohanim (see Yoma 23b).

From Rashi’s commentary, however, it is clear that he holds that the same kohen performed both the raising and removing of the ashes. If Rashi had Talmudic precedence for an interpretation that would better fit his parable, why did he choose the interpretation that both tasks were performed by a single kohen?

Perhaps Rashi is implicitly teaching a lesson for us all (not just a lesson for kohanim, but for every Jew, as we read in parshas Yisro 19:6: “and you will be unto Me a nation of priests, and a holy people.”):

In our service of Hashem, much of our time is spent preparing: walking to shul, cooking for Shabbos, acquiring a lulav and esrog, etc. For us, there is an obvious spiritual advantage in the mitzvah itself compared to the preparatory acts that precede it, as when we do a mitzvah we connect directly with Hashem in a revealed way. But from Hashem’s perspective, the preparatory acts of a mitzvah and the mitzvah itself are equally important. As the preparation is a necessary component to the fulfillment of the mitzvah, they are both part of Hashem’s will.

Therefore, although the kohen must change clothes to ensure the priestly garb does not get filthy while removing the ashes, it is the same kohen who is worthy of performing the mitzvah of raising the ash to the side of the Altar as the one who is charged with the menial task of removing the ash from the Temple courtyard.

This is a timely lesson as we are prepare our homes (and ourselves) for Pesach.

Although technically the mitzvah to destroy chametz is only on the 14th of Nissan, if in the weeks prior to Pesach we do not take the time to make the proper preparations, then we will not be able to enter Pesach chametz-free.

So when we don our smocks to rid the house of chametz, we must know that although from our perspective the Seder is the moment of most evident spiritual connection, from Hashem’s point of view, sweeping behind the cabinet is just as precious as eating the afikomen.

May we all have much success in our Pesach preparations, and a kasher and freilichen Pesach!


Originally from Arlington, VA, Alex Zaloum (WBM 2016) graduated from Harvard College last spring and is currently pursuing semicha at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, NJ.

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An Introduction and Tribute to Nechama Leibowitz’s Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Skootsky

This year, the yartzeit of Nechama Leibowitz (1905 – 1997) falls out during parshat Vayikra. In honor of her incredible work teaching Torah and encouraging the study of Torah, this devar Torah will be based on her teachings. This is meant literally. Perhaps best-known to the English speaking world through the translated essays in “Eyunim – Studies in Torah,” originally published (Hebrew) in 1954, earlier, in 1942, she began printing and mailing out the original parsha sheet – her gilyonot. Unlike today’s parsha sheets, gilyonei Nechama had questions, developed out of reading the text of the parsha closely, sometimes with unfamiliar questions based on familiar commentators, and sometimes along with more obscure or contemporaneous commentators, such as Umberto Cassuto or Benno Jacob. Nechama would mail out the sheets, and her “subscribers” would learn them and attempt to answer them. Then they would mail them back, and Nechama would mark their papers before mailing them back, to give feedback to her many students. To receive a rare יפה from her would fill the “student,” of any age or achievement in Torah learning, with well-deserved pride.

All of her parsha sheets are available online:

This one can be found here:

For Vayikra, I will “walk through” the process of reading the gilyon, her questions, and then trying to answer them. For פרשת ויקרא תשי”ג, parshat Vayikra of the year 1953, Nechama first quotes the Abarbanel, who cites the Midrash in Vayikra Rabba to Acharei Mot.

Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi stated a parable:

“It is like a King whose heart is filled with love for his son, and his son is accustomed to eating non-kosher things. The king said: feed him from my table, and he will learn on his own to no longer eat non-kosher things.

Similarly, the nation of Israel were sinners, worshipping idols, and were bringing sacrifices to forbidden demonic spirits, and causing themselves to be harmed. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: Offer your sacrifices before me, near the Tent of Meeting, and separate yourselves from idol worship!”

Nechama then cites Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, from his commentary to Vayikra:

“After careful and extensive study, it seems clear that the version of Vayikra Rabba that the Abarbanel cites is completely textually flawed. In the version he cites, the story cannot be understood and is illogical. Indeed, in all the published versions of the midrash, we have a different text:

‘and his son is accustomed to eating non-kosher things. the King said: let this one always be by my table, and he will learn to no longer eat non-kosher things.

Similarly, since the nation of Israel were passionate about idol worship…’”

Then Nechama asks three questions. Some of her questions would be marked with an “x”, indicating that they were harder than usual. Some had “xx”, indicating that they were very hard. For this gilyon, none of the questions are marked with “x”s, so I will venture to answer them.

  1. Explain, how it is possible for the Midrash, in the version cited by the Abarbanel, to serve as a support for the opinion of the Rambam about the sacrifices.
  1. Explain why this version “cannot be understood and is illogical” according to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman?
  1. What is the essential difference between these two versions of the midrash?

Before I answer them, note pedagogically what is going on here. Questions 1 and 2 require the student to offer two explanations, from two points of view, that contradict each other! Then, Question 3 asks the student to identify what the difference in meaning between the two versions would be. This is all based on two versions of a Midrash! Nechama’s incredible attention to language and Hebrew was not limited to the text of Chumash, and allowed her to teach incisive lessons where others heedlessly continued reading.

My answers:

  1. Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim 3:32,  takes the position that the purpose of many commandments, including the sacrifices, was to gradually and gently bring humans to gradual knowledge of God, rather than attempt to bring them from one extreme to another all at once.

Therefore, in the version of Midrash cited by the Abarbanel, the son continues to engage in behavior similar to what he was doing before the King took an interest in him. Eventually, by merely being brought closer to the King, the son will slowly, at his own speed, come to knowledge of God and proper behavior.

  1. According to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, it does not make sense for the King to basically allow his son to continue the same bad behavior. It is implied that the King serves his son the same non-kosher food that he ate before. For Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, this seems impossible. Therefore, he prefers the version where the son is brought close to King’s table, so that he can learn which foods ought to be eaten. The change from worshipping idols to worshipping God is analogous to the change from eating non-kosher food to kosher food, even if the means of worship, including animal sacrifice, remain similar.
  1. The essential difference between the two versions of the Midrash is whether or not the King provides non-kosher food for his son. It seems strongly implied in the first version of the Midrash that this is the case, and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s forceful objection, that the Midrash as cited by Abarbanel “cannot be understood and is illogical,” actually supports and sustains that read.

The Abarbanel says that, in of themselves, the sacrifices were analogous to the non-kosher food of the midrash, but moving the sacrifices into Mikdash, governed by the rules in Sefer Vayikra, was an improvement over the Israelites’ worship of idols. This would eventually lead to proper knowledge of how to serve God.

Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman says that the purpose of the sacrifices instituted in Sefer Vayikra was to direct the Israelite’s passion for worship towards Hashem exclusively. By directing the sacrifices to Hashem, the means of worship that previously was used for illicit idolatry becomes “kosher.”

So, out of two different texts of the Midrash, cited by two relatively obscure sources, Abarbanel and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, Nechama taught two perspectives on the sacrifices detailed in Sefer Vayikra, each belonging to a great rabbi whose opinions were not explicitly stated, but had to be drawn out by a master teacher.

May her memory, and the Torah that she teaches, be a blessing.

Joshua Skootsky (SBM 2012, 2015) is a student at Yeshiva University.

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Devotion and Completion

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

In Parashat Vayakhel, we finally hear about the actual building of the Mishkan, which we have been learning about for past few weeks. The people donate the raw materials, wise men and women volunteer as laborers, and Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur and Aholiav ben Achismakh are officially appointed as the head craftsmen. Together, this team creates all of the various structures that they are commanded to.

However, when it comes to giving credit for the work, not all credit is shared equally. Moshe tells the people that all of the wise men will be making each of the different Keilim, and this section of the Parasha is introduced by talking about the work of everyone. However, when it comes to the recounting of each of the vessels individually, rather than saying “ויעשו”, and they made, it just says “ויעש”, and he made. This fact is highlighted in Shemot 37:1, where it says “ויעש בצלאל את הארן”, and Betzalel made the Ark. Presumably, Betzalel is the singular “he” mentioned by all of the previous Keilim.

Why is Betzalel singled out? Midrash Tanchuma 10 gives an answer:

כתיב ויעש בצלאל את הארן עצי שטים. ובצלאל עצמו עשה הכל?! שכל פעם ופעם הוא אומר ויעש בצלאל! אלא על ידי שנתן נפשו הרבה על המשכן, לפיכך לא קפח הקדוש ברוך הוא שכרו והוא מפרסמו בכל פעם ופעם, שנאמר, ויעש בצלאל… ואף בצלאל, כל החכמים עשו עמו. ולפי שנתן נפשו אל המשכן הרבה, לפיכך כתיב, ויעש בצלאל את הארן.

It says “and Betzalal made the Ark out of Shittim wood.” And Betzalel himself made everything?! Every time it says “and Betzalal made”! Rather because he devoted himself a lot the Mishkan, therefore Hashem did not hold back his reward and He publicized him every time, as it says, “And Betzalel made”… And also Betzalel, all of the wise men worked with him, but because he devoted himself a lot into the Mishkan, therefore it says, “and Betzalel made the Ark.”

What the Midrash is saying is that even though both Betzalel and the rest of the workers put in much effort into the building of the Mishkan, Betzalel’s devotion caused the Mishkan to be attributed to him.

It would seem from this that the person who works the hardest on the task is ultimately the one who is credited with getting the task accomplished. However, another Tanchumah, in Eikev 6, at first glance seems to contradict this:

כל המצוה אם התחלת במצוה הוי גומר את כלה למה אמר רבי יוחנן כל מי שמתחיל במצוה ואחרי כן בא אחר וגמרה נקראת על שם גומרה, ממי את למד ממשה כיון שיצאו ישראל ממצרים מה כתיב ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף (שמות יג) כל העם עוסקין בבזה ומשה היה מטפל בעצמות יוסף… נסתלק משה במדבר ולא נכנס לארץ הכניסו ישראל עצמות יוסף וקברו אותן ותלה המצוה בהן שנאמר (יהושע כד) ואת עצמות יוסף אשר העלו בני ישראל ממצרים קברו בשכם, לכך אמר להם כל המצוה,

“All of the Mitzvah” – if you started a Mitzvah, you should finish it completely. Why? Rabbi Yochanan said anyone who starts a Mitzvah and then another person comes and finishes it, it is called by the name of the one who finished it. From whom do you learn this? From Moshe. When the Israelites left Egypt what does it say, “And Moshe took the bones of Yosef”, all of the nation was busy collection spoils and Moshe was taking care of the bones of Yosef… Moshe died in the desert and didn’t enter the land. The Israelites brought in Yosef’s bones and buried them. The Mitzvah was attributed to them as it says “and the bones of Yosef that the Israelites brought from Egypt they buried in Shechem.” Therefore it says “all of the Mitzvah.”

It seems from the Tanchumah that what causes someone to be credited with the action is not the level of devotion to the action – indeed, the Midrash admits that Moshe was the most devoted to the transport of Yosef’s remains, more than the rest of the Jews. Rather, credit for an action is given to the one who causes the action to be completed. Devotion before completion seems to be irrelevant.

If we look more closely at each of the two cases, though, we find that there are other places in Tanach which seem to support the opposite Tanchumah.

In Divrei HaYamim II Chapter 1, it is Moshe who is credited with the building of the Mishkan, while Betzalel is only credited as the creator of an individual component: 

(ג) וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹמֹה וְכָל הַקָּהָל עִמּוֹ לַבָּמָה אֲשֶׁר בְּגִבְעוֹן כִּי שָׁם הָיָה אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד יְקֹוָק בַּמִּדְבָּר:  

(ד) אֲבָל אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים הֶעֱלָה דָוִיד מִקִּרְיַת יְעָרִים בַּהֵכִין לוֹ דָּוִיד כִּי נָטָה לוֹ אֹהֶל בִּירוּשָׁלִָם: 

(ה) וּמִזְבַּח הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן   אוּרִי  בֶן  חוּר  שָׂם  לִפְנֵי  מִשְׁכַּן יְקֹוָק וַיִּדְרְשֵׁהוּ שְׁלֹמֹה וְהַקָּהָל: 

(3) And Shlomo and all of the congregation with him went to the Bamah in Givon because there was the Ohel Moed of God that Moshe the servant of Hashem had made in the desert.

(4) But the Ark of God David had brought up from Kiryat Yearim when David was prepared for hit because he had pitched a tent for it in Jerusalem.

(5) And the copper alter that Betzaelel ben Uri ben Chur had made was there before the Mishkan of Hashem, and Shlomo and the congregation seeked it out.

Giving credit to Moshe for the Mishkan makes sense when we look at Parashat Pekudei. There, it is Moshe himself who puts together the pieces that Betzalel had made to build the Mishkan. In other words, Moshe is the one who completed the building of the Mishkan, and therefore he is the one who is credited with its creation. Betzalel is only credited with making the individual Keilim-which were things that he oversaw to completion. This Pasuk seems to match the Tanchumah about receiving credit for completing the Mitzvah.

On the other side of the coin, we see that credit given to the Israelites for the carrying of Yosef’s bones may actually be due to devotion to the action. Bamidbar 9:6-14 discuss the laws of Pesach Sheini. These laws are introduced because of some Israelites who were impure at the time of the regular Korban Pesach and were upset that they would miss out on completing the Mitzvah. The Gemara in Sukkah 25 asks why these men were impure, and one of the possibilities given is as follows:

דתניא: ויהי אנשים אשר היו טמאים לנפש אדם וכו’ אותם אנשים מי היו? נושאי ארונו של יוסף היו, דברי רבי יוסי הגלילי,

As it says in a Baraita: “And there were men who were impure due to a corpse, etc.” Who were those men? They were the ones who carried the coffin of Yosef, these are the words of R. Yosei HaGlili.

An implication of this Gemara (and a similar Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 20:19) is that once Moshe took Yosef’s bones out of Egypt, he already stopped his personal involvement, instead leaving the carrying of the bones to other people. Therefore it is possible that he was not as devoted to the completion of the Mitzvah as we previously thought, which is why it is the Israelites, not he, who is given credit. (I don’t think that saying that Moshe is acting in a supervisory role is sufficient to prove his devotion, as the Pesukim seem to say that Betzalel was actually involved in the work itself instead of in just a supervisory role.)

What comes out of these two Midrashim, then, is that just devotion to an action or the completion of an action are not enough; rather, it is important to show devotion to an action all along and to follow through until the end. Sometimes this is beyond our control – Moshe died before he could bring Yosef’s bones into Eretz Yisrael, and even in the desert, it is likely that he could not carry the bones because he needed to be in a state of constant Taharah (see for example the interpretation of Isha Kushit in Bamidbar 12 as meaning that he needed to separate from Tzipporah). For Betzalel, too, it is not his fault that he did not complete the Mishkan either. Hashem commanded Moshe specifically to put up the Mishkan; indeed, the Midrash Tanchumah on Pikudei states that the workmen tried to put up the Mishkan but couldn’t, and it was only Moshe who was able to. Nevertheless, the fact that the Torah neglects to give them credit in this situation anyway can teach about the times in our lives when we do have the ability to devote our efforts to something and to see it through to completion.

Davida Kollmar (SBM 2014) is the Program Administrator for CMTL.

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The Holy Anointing-Oil and the Pure Incense

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dan Margulies

The baraita of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, which is quoted in many rabbinic sources (e.g. Avoda Zara 20b) and formed the scaffolding for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, lists a ladder of ascending character traits. The version quoted by many of the rishonim includes the phrase: “and purity leads one to holiness”. To the modern reader, the traits identified as “purity” and “holiness” may be somewhat obscure, but beyond their technical halakhic meanings in the world of the temple service, they speak to broader themes in our service of God and our construction of Jewish society.

Parashat Ki Tisa introduces us to two preparations—the incense and the anointing-oil—which can shed some light on the meanings of purity and holiness through their similarities and differences.

The anointing-oil (described in Shemot 30:22-33) and the incense (Shemot 30:34-38) share many points in common. They are both made up of a variety of exotic spices, they are described variably as “holy”, “holiest of holy” and “for use with holy objects”. And their production or misappropriation for personal use carries the punishment of karet.

The contrasts are highlighted by the rabbinic interpretations of these details. The anointing-oil was only made once, in the time of Moshe (Menachot 88a) while the incense was made yearly or as needed (Keritot 6a-b). According to rabbinic tradition, the anointing-oil only needed to be made once because it exists in miraculous perpetuity without being consumed:

“Of the 12 log of oil … the fire burned some off, and the wood absorbed some, and the kettle absorbed some, and it was used to anoint the entire mishkan and its vessels … and Aharon and his sons and all of it remains for future times” (Yerushalmi Sota 8:3, Bavli Horayot 11b)

Part of the defining nature of the anointing-oil is that it will not run out, and thus will never need to be replaced. It exists “for [God] for generations to come” (Shemot 30:31). It, like the aron, is a part of the original mishkan that will never be destroyed.

In commenting on the phrase “and [Betzalel] made the anointing-oil—holy” (Shemot 37:29), Rabbi Ovadia Seforno connects the holiness of the anointing-oil to its permanence. He writes: “this points to the idea that it will not be lost [i.e. consumed] as [God] said, ‘This will be holy to me for generations’ (Shemot 30:31)”. Sforno makes explicit the notion that the holiness of the anointing-oil is bound up with its permanence; that is, we are meant to understand that things that attain a holy state retain it permanently. This is reflected by the rabbinic dictum “we only ascend is matters relating to holiness,” as well many of the halakhot regarding misappropriation of temple property (meila), and specific laws concerning the anointing-oil itself (Keritot 7a).

Unlike the anointing-oil, the incense mixture was meant to be consumed—to be burned on its altar twice daily—and thus needed to be replaced regularly. Although it too is called “holy” (Shemot 30:35), the Torah twice refers to the incense as “pure” (Shemot 30:35, 37:29). In Shemot 37:29 it is quite explicitly being contrasted with the “holy” anointing-oil. In his comments on Parashat Vayakhel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (author of the Shem Mishmuel) asks why the pasuk poses this contrast between the incense being “pure” and the anointing-oil being “holy”.

The Shem Mishmuel’s question was preempted by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (author of the Sfas Emes) in his comments on Parashat Korah 5658, who based on the Zohar (Naso 121b and Shoftim 275b in Raya Mehemna) explains that the kabbalistic aspect of a levite is “purity” and of a kohen is “holiness”. He goes on to explain that this is because “holiness” is something that comes from God down to human beings, but “purity” is something based in human initiative. The ability to bring the incense was unique to someone who possessed both qualities—purity and holiness—and that was Aharon and not Korah.

This paradigm can help explain further why the anointing-oil is called “holy” while the incense is called “pure”. The anointing-oil was produced once and lasts forever—it has a kind of stasis to it, while the incense needed to be produced regularly by generations of experts who dedicated their skill to perfecting it. The incense required human effort, expertise, and regular input to maintain its purpose. In our service of God we can strive for holiness, but as the Sfas Emes suggests holiness can be difficult to cultivate since it stems from a Divine source. But we can also strive for purity, a human trait that grows and is enriched by our input and our effort in our service of God.

Dan Margulies (Winter Beit Midrash 2016) is a fourth-year semikha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and teaches Talmud at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center.

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Parashat Zakhor: Carry On My Wayward Son

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Gedwiser

What are we remembering with parashat zakhor? Unlike so many of the questions that Deuteronomy 25:17-19 raises, this one seems to have a straightforward answer:  we remember “what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.” Yet for one midrash, the answer was not so obvious.

We begin with a family of midrashim that share a common denominator of Israel as a wayward child, and Amalek as its punishment. One better-known permutation explains the juxtaposition between Exodus 17:7 (Israel wondered, “Is God in our midst or not?”) and 17:7 (“Amalek came”), distilled by Rashi to Exodus 17:8:

משל לאדם שהרכיב בנו על כתפו ויצא לדרך, היה אותו הבן רואה חפץ ואומר, אבא טול חפץ זה ותן לי, והוא נותן לו, וכן שניה וכן שלישית, פגעו באדם אחד, אמר לו אותו הבן ראית את אבא. אמר לו אביו אינך יודע היכן אני, השליכו מעליו ובא הכלב ונשכו

An analogy to a person who put his child on his shoulder and went on a journey. The son would see an object and say “Abba, pick up that thing and give it to me.” And he gave it to him, and so a second and third. They met a certain man. That son asked him: “Have you seen my father?” His father said to him, “You don’t know where I am?!” He cast him down off of him and a dog came and bit him.

Israel is the ungrateful child and God is the angry parent who decides to teach that child a lesson by withdrawing his protection. Amalek is the biting dog, ever ready to attack if God puts Israel down. This version of the midrash grows out of the text in Exodus and does not refer to parashat zakhor in Deuteronomy. (See Midrash Tanhuma (Buber ed.), Yitro 4; see also Shmot Rabbah 26:2.)

A similar midrash appears in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah (Zakhor, 3) with a twist: at the end, God does not put the child down with a rhetorical question, but with an explicit lesson:

אמר להם הקבה הרהרתם עלי, חייכם שאני מודיע לכם, הרי הכלב ונשך אתכם. ואי זה, זה עמלק שנאויבא עמלק (שם /שמות/ ח), לכך נאמזכור (דברים כה: יז).

God said to them: you doubted Me?  By your life I will inform you. Behold a dog will bite you. And which is that? It is Amalek, as it says “Amalek came” (Ex. 17:8). Therefore it says, “remember” (Deut. 25:17). (emphasis added).

Withdrawing God’s protection is supposed to answer the Israelites’ question “Is God in our midst or not,” presumably in the affirmative.[1] Most interestingly, this version of the midrash connects the lesson learned to the commandment of memory, suggesting that we are to remember not only the fact of Amalek’s attack, but its purpose. If Jews ever veer toward ungratefulness for the benefits of God’s world, remembering Amalek serves as a cautionary tale, and perhaps implicit threat, about what happens if they permit doubt to overtake them.

Another related midrash from the Tanhuma (this time on Deuteronomy (Ki Tetse, 9), not Exodus), takes the same idea one step further:

מלהד למלך שהיה לו כרם והקיפו גדר והושיב בו המלך כלב נשכן אמר המלך כל מי שיבא ויפרוץ את הגדר ישכנו הכלב, לימים בא בנו של מלך פרץ את הגדר נשכו הכלב, כל זמן שהיה המלך מבקש להזכיר חטא של בנו שפרץ הגדר אומר לו זכור אתה היאך נשכך הכלב, כך כל זמן שהקבה מבקש להזכיר חטאן של ישראל שחטאו ברפידים שנא‘ (שמות יז) היש הבקרבנו, אמר להם זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק

What is the analogy? A king who had a vineyard, and he surrounded it with a fence and put a guard dog inside. The king said, anyone who comes and breeches the gate, the dog will bite him. In some time the son of the king came and breached the gate and the dog bit him. Every time the king wished to recall his son’s sin of breaching the gate he says to him, “recall how the dog bit you.” So every time that God wishes to recall the sin of Israel who sinned at Refidim, as it is said “Is God in our midst [or not]? He said to them, “Remember that which Amalek did to you.”

This midrash casts remembering Amalek as more than a reminder of the consequences of sin; the thing we are supposed to remember is not just Israel’s punishment, but the sin itself. “Remember Amalek” is God’s roundabout way of saying “remember when you breached the gate?” Though most people assume that the purpose of remembering Amalek is to carry out the next commandment in the Torah, erasing them, this midrash would seem to divorce the two.  We remember Amalek to remember our own sin.  The connection to anti-Amalek violence becomes unclear, and the focus of shabbat zakhor shifts radically from nursing a sense of victimhood to one of regret and repentance.

In addition to this unexpected shift in focus, the Tanhuma also at least hints at an even more radical suggestion. If “remember Amalek” means “remember yourselves,” then, grammatically, we are “Amalek” for the purposes of that sentence. If so, we may wonder whether we are Amalek in a deeper sense as well. Recall, after all, that Amalek’s ancestor and ours were twins.[2]

This is fraught territory. Does the idea of “Amalek is us” address the moral quandaries in the passage or exacerbate them? At the very least, it could be a worthwhile experiment to turn our memories inward this shabbat, rather than toward external enemies. And, perhaps, shaking up our us/them categories on a shabbat when Purim begins in just a few hours will lead us to new understandings of the difference (or lack thereof) between ארור המן (cursed is Haman) and ברוך מרדכי (blessed is Mordecai).



[1] Exactly how being attacked is supposed to convince Israel that God is in their midst is unclear. Perhaps the lesson works through some combination of demonstrating, by contrast, the protection they previously enjoyed, and requiring faith to win the battle. Alternatively, perhaps God’s חייכם שאני מודיע לכם is more of a threat, along the lines of “I’ll show you” – that is, show you what happens when God is really not in your midst. This role of Amalek would also dovetail with the role of Amalek in the story of the ma’apilim, Numbers 14:42-45.

[2] See generally the chapter on Amalek in R. David Silber’s recent work on Megillat Esther, עם לעת כזאת.


Miriam Gedwiser (SBM 2002) is on the faculty of Drisha and is a nonpracticing attorney.


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The Message of the Keruvim

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shaul Epstein

Hashem commands Moshe to create Keruvim on top of the cover to the Ark of the Covenant. The verses state that these Keruvim “shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings… two beings with faces and wings that will face each other.” (Exodus 25:20)

Having beings with faces and wings in the Mishkan seems to contradict Judaism’s strong theological and halakhic condemnation of the use or creation of graven images. This problem is intensified if one accepts Rashi’s opinion that all the commands related to the Mishkan came after the building of the Golden Calf and its subsequent punishment. Why would G-d command the creation of Keruvim if similar images had led the Jewish people to commit one of their gravest national sins?   

Even if one assumes against Rashi that the Torah is in chronological order, the Jewish people had just heard on Mount Sinai the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Exodus 20:4)!  And if that was not clear enough, the first set of commandments Moshe receives after the revelation at Mount Sinai include the prohibition  “… you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” (20:20)

The Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael parasha 10) cited by Rashi on this second verse clearly picks up on this tension:

?אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב – למה נאמר

– לפי שהוא אומר ועשית שנים כרובים זהב, (אמר) הריני עושה ארבעה –

…תלמוד לומר אלהי זהב – אם הוספת על שנים, הרי הם כאלהי זהב

לא תעשו לכם – שלא תאמר: הואיל ונתנה תורה רשות לעשות בבית המקדש, הריני עושה בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות – תלמוד לומר לא תעשו לכם

Gods of silver and gods of gold– why was this said?

Since it is written (Exodus 25:18) And you shall make two golden cherubs, one might say “I shall make four!” –

To this end it is written “gods of gold” – If you make more than two, they are considered “gods of gold”…

you shall not make for yourselves

So that you not say: “Since the Torah permitted the making (of cherubs) in the Temple, I shall do the same in synagogues and in houses of study” – i

It is therefore, written: You shall not make for yourselves.

According to this halachic Midrash, these first commandments after the Revelation at Mount Sinai anticipate our concerns.  But why does the Torah create those concerns, and why are two cherubs okay when four would not be?

Chizkuni, echoing Midrash Lekach Tov (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), considers this an example of a biblical prohibition with explicit exceptions.  Famous examples of this paradigm include the mixing of wool and linen in Tzitzit despite the general injunction against mixing those fabrics (shatnez), as well as the prohibition of a man marrying his brother’s wife being overridden by the mitzvah of yibbum when the brother dies childless.  Rashbam (Exodus 20:20) and Abarbanel (25:10) both explain that no contradiction exists as the keruvim were not intended for worship, while the prohibition only centers on creating foreign gods.  Dr. Alexander Klein of Bar Ilan University suggests that according to Maimonides, the absolute prohibition of creating images was a decree to prevent people from coming to worship them.  It was a סייג לתורה, a decree that serves a protection from violating another prohibition.  Therefore, states Dr. Klein, since there is no innate prohibition of making images, the Torah can allow their creation in carefuly controlled ways in the Mishkan.

All these explanations provide ways to work around the apparent contradiction,  but  they avoid a larger question: Why would G-d create such a tension in the holiest center of Jewish service?  He could have commanded the Mishkan to exist without any Keruvim, thus avoiding the problem all together.

I would like to humbly suggest that facing such a contradiction in the Mishkan provides us a model for confronting the many other theological challenges we face daily. We would have much simpler lives if things were black and white and we had clear lines and paths drawn for us. Due to many circumstances mostly connected to the imperfection of this world, we live with much grey area and thus need to have exceptions and apparent inconsistencies as part of our daily existence. Seeing the Keruvim in the Mishkan, while recognizing the general prohibition of such images, teach us that sometimes appropriate tension exists within our service to the Divine.

This idea is highlighted specifically through the message and apparent purpose of the Keruvim. While there are numerous opinions regarding what these Keruvim beings might represent (children, angels, male/female to name a few), they all center on some aspect of the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. As stated at the end of the section describing the Keruvim (25:22)

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

At the location where direct communication emanates from Hashem to Moshe and Bnai Yisrael, we see what the relationship represents through the Keruvim and we recognize that this relationship, based on love, will sometimes create discomfort, but will remain strong so long as we stay committed to maintaining this important connection.
Rabbi Shaul Epstein (SBM 2003) currently serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for Buckeye Kosher in Columbus OH and as the Midwest Representative for KVH Kosher.

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