Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Devekut: How Can We Achieve Closeness with the Divine?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jared Anstandig

Devarim 11:22-23 teaches the mitzva of deveikut, or cleaving to God.

כִּי אִם־שָׁמֹר תִּשְׁמְרוּן אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשֹׂתָהּ

לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־ה׳ אֱלֹקיכֶם לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו וּלְדָבְקָה־בוֹ׃

וְהוֹרִישׁ ה׳ אֶת־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִלִּפְנֵיכֶם

וִירִשְׁתֶּם גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים מִכֶּם׃

If, then, you faithfully keep all this Instruction that I command you to do, 

loving the LORD your God, walking in all His ways, and cleaving to Him,  

then the LORD will dislodge before you all these nations: 

you will dispossess nations greater and more numerous than you.

How can one cleave to God? Rashi, following Sifri, notes that this cannot refer to physical cleaving to God.  In Rashi’s words,

וַהֲלֹא אֵשׁ אוֹכְלָה הוּא!

But God is a consuming fire!

How could the Torah mandate that we cleave to Him?! It is impossible, and even approaching that degree of closeness is dangerous!

Chazal and Rashi responds that though we cannot cleave to God Himself, we fulfill this mitzvah by cleaving to the Sages and those who adhere to God’s will.  Rashi writes:

אֶלָּא הִדַּבֵּק בַּתַּלְמִידִים וּבַחֲכָמִים

וּמַעֲלֶה אֲנִי עָלֶיךָ כְּאִלּוּ נִדְבַּקְתָּ בּוֹ

Rather, cleave to the scholars and sages, 

and I will consider it as though you cleaved to Him.

We cleave to God, according to this, indirectly.  By being close to and supporting students and teachers of Torah we draw close to God.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, in his Torah Temimah (to Devarim 4:4, note 2), comments that the rabbinic interpretation of this mitzvah seems to go far beyond what is necessary to explain the verse.  He writes

מה קשה ליה בכלל וכי אפשר להדבק בשכינה וכו’,

והלא אפשר לפרש בפשיטות

מלשון דביקות הנפש מאהבה וחבה יתירה

וכמ”ש דוד: דבקה נפשי אחריך?

What is the difficulty at all, such that we ask “is it possible to cleave to God, etc?!” 

We can explain this simply 

by translating it as referring to the cleaving of the soul out of love and great affection, 

as David wrote (Tehilim 63:9) “My soul cleaved to and followed You”

Why did Chazal feel compelled to take this verse so far away from its apparent meaning, that we strive to cleave to God emotionally and spiritually?

Torah Temimah answers essentially that clinging to God in a deep spiritual way cannot be the peshat here, because it is too difficult for a layperson to accomplish.  He writes,

וא”א לומר כזה לכל המון העם …

אלא ודאי מכוין לדבק ממש

ודבק שאפשר לכל אדם

It would not be possible to say this [that is, spiritually cleaving to God] to the masses … 

rather, it certainly means to literally cleave, 

in a manner that is possible for all people to achieve.

Chazal are forced to understand this mitzvah as cleaving to the rabbis because it would be unrealistic for the Torah to expect the masses to sincerely and deeply cleave to God.  The Torah would never put so much weight on a relationship with God that the majority of people could never reach.

While there is much truth in Torah Temimah’s comment here about the human experience and the ways in which we have truly meaningful religious experiences, I believe that, even as simple people, we can move toward achieving closeness with God directly in a spiritual way.

In Al Hateshuvah, Rav Soloveitchik presents an apparent contradiction in the words of Rambam.

כשהוא מדבר במציאות אלוקים,

שהיא מצוות עשה ראשונה,

הוא אומר בספר המצוות שנצטוינו ׳להאמין באלוקות.״

“When he speaks about the existence of God,

which is the first positive Mitzva, 

Maimonides says in (the standard translation of) Sefer Hamitzvot that we are obligated ‘to believe in God.’”

ואילו בהלכות יסודי-התורה שבמשנה תורה

משתמש הרמב״ם לא במלה ״להאמין״ אלא במלה ״לידע.״

However, in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah in the Mishneh Torah,

Rambam doesn’t use the term “to believe,” but rather, “to know.”

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that each of these terms reflects a different experience with God.  The first is belief. Though Rav Soloveitchik does not unpack what this expression means, it seems that in his opinion, “to believe” refers to an experience of faith that God exists. A moment of profound inspiration, for instance, might cause one to “believe” in God.

Knowledge goes further.  Rav Soloveitchik maintains that knowledge cannot refer to an intellectual understanding of God, for that would be impossible.  As the Sages say, God is an all-consuming fire. Try as we might, humans are too frail to actually comprehend God. Rather,

פירושו של ״לידע״ הוא לדעתי,

כי אמונתנו במציאות ה׳ תיעשה להכרה תמידית

The meaning of “to know,” in my opinion,

is that our belief in the existence of God becomes constant.

Belief happens sporadically, in the wake on acute experiences.  Knowledge is ever-present. It’s a continuous awareness that God exists.

Rav Soloveitchik takes this even further.  More than a constant recognition of God in the world, knowledge of God means recognizing God’s involvement in one’s individual life.  For me to know God is to recognize that everything that I have is granted to me directly by God Who is consistently involved in my life.  And a person who recognizes all the good things that God has done for him can have but one response:

הוא מוכרח, כביכול, לחבק את הקב״ה

One is forced, as it were, to embrace God.

Seeing the goodness God grants to me brings me closer to God out of an immense feeling of thankfulness.

According to Chazal, I draw near to God and develop my relationship with Him by surrounding myself with rabbis and scholars.  But perhaps this is not the exclusive modality of deveikut.  The experience of reflecting on everything that one has and on its Source also draws one nearer to the Divine.

May we be all successful developing this attitude of gratitude and ultimately moving closer to God.

Rabbi Jared Anstandig (SBM 2011) is the Orthodox Rabbi at the University of Michigan Hillel and rabbi of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan.

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What’s Greater Than Creation, Revelation, and Miracles?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan

Sefer Dvarim is Moshe’s address to Bnei Yisrael just before they enter Eretz Yisrael. Those being addressed are the children of  the generation that G-d freed from slavery in  Egypt. They are tasked with conquering the land and establishing a just society founded on the teachings Moshe has taught them. Moshe tries to prepare them by retelling their forbearers’ history, teaching laws, and reminding them that they can be successful in the Promised Land only by following the teachings of G-d.

Va’etchanan begins with Moshe retelling how God denied him the opportunity to cross into Israel, only allowing him to gaze down upon it from a distance. Moshe then addresses the people directly in 4:1:

וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל,

שְׁמַע אֶל-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם, לַעֲשׂוֹת—

לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ, וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם, נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

And now, O Israel,

hearken to the statutes and to the judgments which I teach you to do,

in order that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord, God of your forefathers, is giving you.

Moshe then offers a variety of reasons and motivations for following the laws. First he  uses fear by reminding them of how God punished those who followed Baal Peor. Second is a positive take, that following the Torah makes the Jewish nation appear wise in the eyes of the other nations. Third are a set of rhetorical questions: does another nation have such a personal relationship with God? Does another nation have a compendium of just, right laws? Moshe ends with an emotional appeal, instructing Bnei Yisrael to remember receiving the Torah at Sinai.

However, as a practical man, Moshe also discusses the unfortunate possibility that despite everything he has said, Bnei Yisrael will in the future transgress God’s teachings. This should result in Bnei Yisrael being exiled from the land the current audience anticipates entering. Moshe promises that if in that sinful future, Bnei Yisrael search their hearts and return to God, He will hear their voice. This great ability for God to accept tshuva is emphasized in 4:31-34:

כִּי אֵל רַחוּם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתֶךָ;

וְלֹא יִשְׁכַּח אֶת-בְּרִית אֲבֹתֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָהֶם.

כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ,

לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ,

וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:

הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ?

הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱ-לֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה—וַיֶּחִי?

אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱ לֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיך?

For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not let you loose or destroy you; neither will He forget the covenant of your fathers, which He swore to them.

For ask now regarding the early days that were before you,

since the day that God created man upon the earth,

and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens,

whether there was anything like this great thing, or was the likes of it heard?

Did ever a people hear God’s voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live?

Or has any god performed miracles to come and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesome deeds, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?

The rhetorical questions listed refer to the creation of humanity, the mass revelation at Sinai, and the large-scale, public, and miraculous Divine intervention of the Exodus. These represent the archetypical divine acts: creation, revelation, and performing miracles. And yet, they are used as a kal v’chomer to explain God’s capacity to accept teshuvah. These verses give strength by teaching how mercy, too, is Divine and highlighting the awesome nature of God to welcome us back.

This is exactly what Bnei Yisrael need to hear at this momentous juncture.  As they approach the land promised to Avraham so many generations before, they need to hear that enduring in the land is realistic. They are not entering on a permanent zero-tolerance probationary period. G-d will take them back, and let them stay, if they return after they stray.

We know what happened eventually. We just observed Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of Jewish destruction and exile as a result of the Jewish people’s transgression, and failure to return.  In the wake of another Tisha B’Av, this is what we need to hear. Let us find comfort as we turn towards Rosh Hashana and remember the miracle of mercy.

Betsy Morgan (SBM 13′, 14′) works in the Philadelphia area as a Research Engineer and spends her time journeying through the wealth of Jewish learning in classic and Yiddish texts.

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Is Isolation a Bug or a Feature?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky

The Torah tells us that humans are social creatures – we are not meant to be permanently and completely alone.

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃

The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

Is Bil’am alone?

We know little about Bil’am and his life before Balak dropped in, nor about the nation and place he came from. He seems an isolated character appearing in an isolated story (although Chazal read him into other stories.) 

It seems that Bil’am generally gets his messages from God when asleep (see 22:9-12), and thus we can infer that he communicates with God without an audience, like most prophets.

But he is not always alone. When Bil’am agrees (after multiple requests) to go to Balak, he is accompanied by his own young assistants (22:22) as well as the messengers from Moav. In the famous dramatic scene of Bil’am’s talking donkey, it is likely that Bil’am’s main motivation is not be embarrassed in front of his notable entourage. The donkey’s refusal to cooperate makes Bil’am look weak, as Rashi follows Midrash Tanchuma in noticing.

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר בִּלְעָם֙ לָֽאָת֔וֹן 

כִּ֥י הִתְעַלַּ֖לְתְּ בִּ֑י 

ל֤וּ יֶשׁ־חֶ֙רֶב֙ בְּיָדִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה הֲרַגְתִּֽיךְ׃

Balaam said to the ass, 

“You have made a mockery of me! 

If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”

Rashi: 

לו יש חרב בידי. 

גְּנוּת גְּדוֹלָה הָיָה לוֹ דָבָר זֶה בְּעֵינֵי הַשָּׂרִים — 

זֶה הוֹלֵךְ לַהֲרֹג אֻמָּה שְׁלֵמָה בְּפִיו וּלְאָתוֹן זוֹ צָרִיךְ כְּלֵי זַיִן:

‘This utterance was a great shame for him in the sight of the officers: 

this man was going for the purpose of slaying a whole nation by his mouth, and for this ass he required a weapon! 

(cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 9)

 

Let’s imagine the scene. If the officers and servants could see the talking donkey, their focus would be on it, not on Bil’am. If, on the other hand, as the pasuk says “וַיִּפְתַּ֥ח ה’ אֶת־פִּ֣י הָאָת֑וֹן וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לְבִלְעָם֙” – let’s imagine that when G-d opened the donkey’s mouth, it was only לְבִלְעָם֙ – to Bil’am that the mouth was opened. This reading helps us understand how humiliated Bil’am must have been, so unable to control his donkey that he was reduced to raving about killing it. 

 

So Bil’am, who speaks to God privately, arrives in Moav having been humiliated publicly. He would naturally seek public glory to regain his importance and fame. When he finally meets Balak, he is treated to a grand display of sacrifices and feasting. In verse 23:6, Bil’am makes his first attempt at cursing the people – and does so in front of all of the chieftains of Moav (23:6). But first, he does something interesting: Verse 23:6 tells us

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר בִּלְעָ֜ם לְבָלָ֗ק 

הִתְיַצֵּב֮ עַל־עֹלָתֶךָ֒ וְאֵֽלְכָ֗ה 

אוּלַ֞י יִקָּרֵ֤ה ה֙ לִקְרָאתִ֔י וּדְבַ֥ר מַה־יַּרְאֵ֖נִי וְהִגַּ֣דְתִּי לָ֑ךְ 

וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ שֶֽׁפִי׃

Where does Bil’am go? According to Rashi, Onkelos and others, he goes off alone. The implication: That Bil’am must be solitary to gain inspiration to curse B’nei Yisrael.  

 

(The fact that mainstream translations of the text render “שֶֽׁפִי” as alone should not obscure the fact that this word is very difficult to translate. Ralbag and Tur Ha’Aroch both say it means ‘a high place’ – that his aloneness, if real, was incidental to the fact that he needed to be in a high place (possibly to see B’nei Yisrael) and curse them. Others say it means he was lame. Rabbeinu Bachya, who says שֶֽׁפִי is a hapax legomenon – a word without a peer in the Bible – calls this interpretation as recorded in the Gemara in Sotah 10 midrashic, at which Rashbam might have taken umbrage. After all, there is a verse in Iyov (33:21) where the root is used that way.)

 

Nonetheless, it is Rashi’s interpretation that has taken root as the primary one. Fundamentally, Bil’am must be alone to do the thing that makes him special.

 

This reading sets Bil’am up in contrast to B’nei Yisrael. In his first attempted curse of the people, he says (23:9):

 

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ 

הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃

As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, 

There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations 

Though the Hebrew shoresh b.d.d is distinct from the ambiguous “שֶֽׁפִי”, it strikes us that these two images are just 6 verse apart. Bil’am goes off on his own to curse a people who are set apart – who are alone together. 

 

It is our general understanding that these words Bil’am said are blessings though he intended them to be curses. As a result, the traditional commentaries think “הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן” must be a great compliment of sorts. Rashi uses the word “זָכוּ ” – merited – in his interpretation, telling us that it is a privilege to dwell apart. Ramban appears to give the term a dual meaning, saying that the Jews are united with each other but distinct from other nations. Other nations must band together for strength, but the Jewish people do not need to do so.

 

This text perfectly encapsulates the challenge of living in the modern era. Many of us were taught these values in grade school: It is Bil’am’s lack of modesty – his desire to please the Moabite dignitaries and to be feted – as well as his ambition that steers him astray. God is found in solitary places, the text seems to be saying. In contrast, the Jews are blessed when they dwell alone. (After all, at the end of the parsha, an interaction with Moav does lead to ruin.) In this reading, isolation is a feature of Jewish life. 

 

Many modern Orthodox Jews experience some cognitive dissonance when reflecting on these values. We live in the larger society, attend secular colleges, and teach our children to assert themselves and be ambitious. We no longer see isolationism as a value and we know that both the Jewish nation and the country we inhabit need allies to protect their national interests and better the lives of their citizens. In a globalized world, isolation is an impediment to be overcome. 

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Future Tense, writes that Bil’am worded his prophecies carefully – since he could not curse the people explicitly, he spoke in a manner that was ambiguous enough that each blessing had the potential to become a curse. Rabbi Sacks notes that the book of Eicha also uses the Hebrew root b.d.d to describe the desolation of Jerusalem. 

 

There are certainly moments that call for withdrawal and isolation. There are tasks that are better accomplished alone, and many human beings are introverts who find periods spent alone to be much-needed preparation for the social interaction that is the fabric of our society. The challenge in our era is to thrive spiritually in a globalized world of divergent views and values. We can appreciate the unintended blessings Bil’am gave us without imagining them to be a commandment from God to isolate ourselves in the desert just as we were when Bil’am first laid eyes on us.

 

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM ’06) lives in Rockville, MD and teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

 

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The Torah’s View on Jewish Adulthood

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Drew Kaplan

When does one break out of childhood and into full-blown adulthood? This is a question that is on the minds of many young people: when do they count as adults?

In Jewish life, the answer seems to be 13, from Yehudah, son of Tema’s famous statement that “בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְוֹת” (Avot 5.21), although it merely indicates an age of performing mitzvot, not necessarily an age of adulthood, per se.

While the monetary valuation part of the Torah reading seems rather quite skippable, it would seem that our parashah has something quite valuable to offer us in consideration of stages of ages in Jewish thought. With the various ages and genders being segregated out into monetary value (Lev. 27:1-15), we have an insight into what constitutes adulthood.

Setting aside gender discrimination issues or questions of ableism, etc., it seems that full adulthood in Jewish thought would be at the age of 20, since this age bracket extending up to age 60, receives the highest monetary valuation when one vows to God the equivalent of someone’s life (Lev. 27:3-4). Moreover, leading off the list would seem to indicate a significant place within societal ability, signifying adulthood.

And this is not the only time that 20 takes a significant place within the Torah. The half-shekel expiation money is only done for those between 20 and 60 (Ex. 30:1-16). Another example is the census that is to be taken up at the beginning of the book of Numbers is from 20 years of age and up (Num. 1:1-3), as well as later on in the same book (Num. 26:1-4).

In these places throughout the Torah, it seems quite clear that the age of Torah adulthood is 20 years old. The age of 20 is clearly an age of not only ability, but also responsibility. Even within our American context, various stages of adulthood begin at either 18 or 21, which is within a similar range as our dear twenty.

While people frequently refer to a girl who becomes a bat mitzvah at 12 or a boy who becomes a bar mitzvah at 13 as “becoming a Jewish adult”, anyone can see that that teenager is far from adulthood. Yet, perhaps, this is Yehuda, ben Tema’s way of saying, “You are now officially a teenager, with responsibilities that are similar to those of adults, yet not full adult rights until you fully become an adult.” It’s almost as if Yehudah, ben Tema, was acknowledging the social awkwardness of one’s teenage years, yet religiously framing it.

Rabbi Drew Kaplan (SBM 2006) is a 2009 graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and a newly-minted real estate agent in Ohio. He lives with his wife and four children in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Living in Mutual Support

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elie Lerea

As active participants in a capitalist world, it is not uncommon for us to be filled with a sense of economic dissonance when we read the Torah’s economic legislation. Capitalism assumes that an incentive-based, market economy will result in the most efficient innovation and overall production. Yet much of what is expected of the people of Israel in Parashat BeHar seems to ignore these insights. Does the Torah have a different vision of human nature than capitalism? Or does it sacrifice innovation and efficiency to other priorities?  

For example: Rather than incentivizing innovation and production during every agriculture year, the Torah commands that every seventh year “ושבתה הארץ שבת לה׳” (Lev. 25:2). Rather than working one’s land in the sixth year of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle with the motivation of personal profit, the people of Israel are expected to erase that motivation from their minds by offering up all of the seventh year’s produce “לך ולעבדך ולאמתך ולשכירך ולתושבך הגרים עמך” (Lev. 25:6).    

The Torah also mandates redistribution of wealth. Every fiftieth year of the cycle, family fields are returned to their original owners as “ושבתם איש אל אחזתו ואיש אל משפחתו תשובו” (Lev. 25:10). Instead of incentivizing production by rewarding the successful individual, the Torah rewards all from the production of some. Instead of allowing success to endure, thus stimulating competition and active incentive to increase the value of one’s own property, the Torah redistributes wealth. Finally, instead of establishing a free market, stimulating efficiency through economically profitable decisions, the Torah calls for all family members to feel responsible for The Other by redeeming the field of their kin even if it is not the most lucrative investment for their own personal success.  

To claim that we must choose between the absolutes of a modern capitalist system and the Torah’s mutually supportive society would belittle the complexity and nuance of economic societies and the many factors that play into their success or demise. That being said, when confronted with something foreign to our sensibilities and assumptions, it is always important to consider the core advantages of such foreignness in order to be better able to think with more nuance moving forward.  

This week’s haftorah beautifully captures the undiluted value and advantage of the mutually supportive societies described in Parashat BeHar. 

Jeremiah relays the experience of G-d revealing G-d’s self to him, mandating that he redeem the field of his cash-poor cousin. This seems quite parallel to the law of our Parashah, despite a slight nuance in that he redeems the field directly from his family member. However, after a description of the transaction that occurred between the two members, the chapter concludes with what makes clear an entirely different, broader context to the sale, highlighting the Torah’s message about supportive economies. After concluding the purchase, Jeremiah concludes with the following: 

 

“כי כה אמר ה׳ צבאות אלקי ישראל עוד יקנו בתים ושדות וכרמים בארץ הזאת” 

“And thus said the Lord of Hosts the G-d of Israel: homes, fields, and vinyards will again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32:15) 

 

Jeremiah is purchasing this field with a vivid image of what the horizon looks like for Israel: they are about to be exiled. And thus, in terms of his own economic interests, there would be no purchase more foolish than to buy local real-estate. However, Jeremiah acts and articulates his actions with a broader sensibility in mind. Jeremiah understands that transcending his own interest will allow for a greater sensitivity to The Other, in this case his cousins, but in a broader sense, each individual in his vicinity and ultimately the broader nation of Israel. 

Immediately following his call of hope that the people will yet return to the Land of Israel, Jeremiah continues with a prayer to G-d, delineating G-d’s relationship with the world, G-d’s people’s sin, and, ultimately, a proclamation of G-d’s ultimate delivery of his people. Although the liturgy of the Haftorah cuts off in the middle of the chapter, the custom is to finish with Jeremiah 32:27, with G-d’s proclamation of dominion over the world: “הנה אני ה׳ אלקי כל בשר הממני יפלא כל דבר.” This conclusion connects Jeremiah’s willingness to come to the financial aid of his cousin with what is for him a nonsensical economic purchase with his broader ability to sense G-d in the world and look forward to the eventual return of Israel to its land. It is perhaps this, more widely scoped message that the Parashah, along with its Haftorah, is trying to convey: cultivating a heightened awareness of the people in one’s immediate surroundings is a prerequisite for developing a deep sense of hope in a better world and G-d’s ultimate presence in it. Jeremiah’s ability to tap into the needs around him (at his own personal expense, literally) inspires him to look beyond his own experience and articulate G-d’s dominion and future redemption.  

Thinking back to the economic tensions the Torah poses to capitalism, without choosing one or the other, thinking this way about the Parashah can hopefully help deepen our continual awareness of what is gained and lost in every ideology and model. In this case, it is my hope that keeping the Torah in mind will allow us to always consider the profound benefit of what it means to live in an economically supportive way, stimulating heightened attentiveness to our most immediate circles and beyond.  

 

Elie Lerea (SBM 2016) is currently learning in the Kollel at Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa. 

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The New Mother’s Chatat

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Rafi Eis

Hearing my wife Atara recite Birkat HaGomel after giving birth to our children is among the most spiritual experiences of my life. The break in her voice communicates the intensity of labor and childbirth. Hearing her muster all her energy to give thanks to God for the gift of a new child, and for surviving the ordeal, evokes the recognition that all the blessings of life come from God.

The opening paragraph of Parshat Tazria requires the new mother to bring a young lamb as an Olah offering and a pigeon or dove as a Sin offering. Why these offerings, rather than a Thanksgiving? Exploring that question will give us a window onto the profound nature of creating life and its relationship to the Divine.

Niddah (31b) famously asks why the new mother needs to bring a Sin offering. Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai answers that women in the throes of labor pains swear off marital intimacy to avoid future pregnancy. The Sin offering atones for uttering that oath, which she will violate. But the Talmud rejects this answer in two ways. First, the oath can be undone through asking a sage, preempting the need to violate the oath. Second, this circumstance and offering do not comport with the regular rules of Sin offerings for oath violations. Nonetheless, the Talmud does not provide an alternative explanation for the Sin offering.

I suggest that instead of viewing the Sin and Olah offerings as discrete sacrifices, we should view them as a package. This fits the structure of The Book of Leviticus, whose first seven chapters detail the circumstances and procedures for individuals to bring discrete sacrifices. The sanctification of the Tabernacle and the priests, which follows, entails a package of sacrifices. The new mother is introduced here because she is an individual who brings a package of sacrifices.

This package of an Olah and Sin offering [1] is found in several other Biblical contexts. [2]

  1. Leviticus 9:2-3- sanctification of the Tabernacle and the priests, brought by Aharon.
  2. Numbers 8:12- the appointment of the Levites
  3. Leviticus 16: 3, 5- the Yom Kippur sacrificial order. Both Aharon and the people of Israel bring this package of sacrifices.
  4. Leviticus 5:7- a pauper can replace a cattle Sin offering for accidentally violating an oath by bringing two birds; one as an Olah and one as a Sin sacrifice.
  5. Leviticus 15:15- the purification of the Zav
  6. Leviticus 15:30- the purification of the Zavah
  7. Numbers 6:11- if a nazir becomes impure and violates his nazirite status.

The common denominator of these cases is that in some way the human being enters God’s domain. In the sanctification of the Tabernacle and priests, people and objects become sanctified, while the Levites in occurrence two are rebirthed with a new status. Example three has a human being entering holy space. The pauper in the fourth case cannot just replace the obligated cattle Sin sacrifice with a bird Sin sacrifice. Rather, the pauper needs to acknowledge the change in the divinely ordained sacrificial rite.

Furthermore, God’s realm is not just in the holy, but also in matters of life and death. The Zav and Zavah, previously excluded halakhically and perhaps biologically from fertility, offer sacrifices at being able to be fruitful again. So too, the new mother of our parsha enters into G-d’s domain by creates life, just as God does in Genesis.

The human ability to enter realms beyond this material world can cause confusion as to the proper boundary between the human and divine. The uncommanded actions of Nadav and Avihu illustrate this confusion. Performing a temple service must be done according to divine prescription. We can only enter God’s domain as part of our partnership with Him.

The postpartum woman feels a complete whirlwind of emotions. Her body is bursting with adrenaline, and she looks in amazement at the tiny being whom she just birthed. At the same time her body aches, and many also suffer from postpartum depression. The range of emotions can run the gamut. Halacha steps into the breach to set the right balance. To combat the pain and emotional lows, the Bible insists that the woman recognize that she successfully crossed into God’s realm and created life, but did so as God’s partner. The new mother must therefore offer Olah and Sin offerings. The new mother has not sinned in any way. Rather this combination declares the partnership between God and humanity in creation in general and in generating this particular new life. The completely consumed Olah represents God and our complete dedication to God, while the Sin offering represents the fragile and imperfect state of humanity. Brought together, the package symbolizes the partnership.

This message of human partnership with God is reflected in a few other laws in this section. First, the new mother automatically has dedicated days of impurity and purity. Regardless of any symptomatic bodily secretions, the woman must have a few days of impurity followed by more days of purity. This is unique in the laws of purity and impurity. Second, the command to circumcise male children and bring them into Abraham’s covenant is listed here. Third, the new mother is the Bible’s first individual to be prohibited from entering the temple (Leviticus 12:4) and this is even while she is pure. We learn that these this exclusion applies to other impurities in Numbers 5:2-3 as a general prohibition on some people from entering the temple and its surrounding domains, but only with the new mother is this law stated in the context of the actual impurity and purity. This woman, who just created life like God, is excluded from God’s domain. She then re-enters the temple once she brings her Olah and Sin offering package, which is her declaration of her human partnership with God.

Humans are granted the great privilege and opportunity to live in the “image of God.” This potential enables us to pursue the creative, sublime and holy. To take full advantage requires that on the one hand we acknowledge even the divinity of frequent occurrences. On the other hand, we get this opportunity because of our partnership with God. With this balance, we can truly achieve, as the Bible’s new mother does, the proper covenantal relationship with God.

 

Notes:

[1] This list does not distinguish between the ordering of the sacrifices. See Zevachim 90a and the comments of Rav Hirsch 12:6 s.v. o’ben for further discussion.

[2] This list excludes cases like the purified Metzora who brings an Olah, Sin, and Asham offerings; the Nazir who successfully completes his term, who offers Olah, Sin, and Shelamim sacrifices; and Israel’s Miluim sacrifice . The Sin sacrifice listed as part of the mussaf offerings in Numbers 28-29 is presented separately from the rest of the package.

 

Rabbi Rafi Eis directs a semicha program at Yeshivat Har Etzion and is the Executive Director of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. He learned in the SBM of ’01 and served as a Shoel U’Meishiv in ‘06.

 

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Holy and Non-Holy

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tobie Harris

The root קדש appears nearly 150 times throughout the book of Vayikra. Kedusha is a concept both basic to Judaism and paradoxically (or correspondingly) difficult to pin down in terms of meaning and connotations but the shifts in its usage throughout the book may shed some light on its characteristics (For convenience, I will translate קדוש as ‘holy’; חול/חילל will be rendered ‘non-holy’ because I don’t really care for any other translation).

In the first section of Vayikra, the term holy is used only for korbanot and other sanctuary-adjacent objects. Things are made holy by touching a sacrifice. Later, the mishkan and its vessels are made holy by being anointed with oil and/or blood, as are Aharon and his sons and their clothing. Holiness belongs to ritual places and objects; only kohanim are holy, in some sense as ritual objects and without relation to their behavior. This usage continues throughout the book and accounts for the bulk of the mentions.

But additional usages creep in starting from perek 10. After Aharon’s sons bring a ‘strange fire’ and are killed, Moshe says, rather cryptically:

הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד.

For the first time in this book, God is the object of holiness and specifically of a process of holiness being endowed. A few psukim later, God tells Aharon:

יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר אַל-תֵּשְׁתְּ אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ, בְּבֹאֲכֶם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד–וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם. וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּבֵין הַחֹל, וּבֵין הַטָּמֵא, וּבֵין הַטָּהוֹר. וּלְהוֹרֹת, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–אֵת, כָּל-הַחֻקִּים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיהֶם, בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה.

Here a new term is introduced as an antonym to holy, and an obligation is created to divide between holy and nonholy.

At the end of the parasha, this obligation is echoed in the context of the obligation not to eat impure creatures:

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.  כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי. זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַבְּהֵמָה, וְהָעוֹף, וְכֹל נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת בַּמָּיִם; וּלְכָל-נֶפֶשׁ, הַשֹּׁרֶצֶת עַל-הָאָרֶץ. לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַטָּמֵא וּבֵין הַטָּהֹר; וּבֵין הַחַיָּה, הַנֶּאֱכֶלֶת, וּבֵין הַחַיָּה, אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵאָכֵל.

Holiness is now a category relevant to the entire nation – they can be holy and they can endow themselves with holiness, not as ritual objects but by virtue of their observing the laws of impure, which are now applied in a non-mishkan context. This holiness parallels God’s holiness. The obligation to be holy is presented as a syllogism: God is holy, God is our Lord, thus we must be holy. And this holiness is achieved, here, by avoiding that which is impure.

The use of holiness as a concept applying outside the mishkan is picked up again in perek 19, again as part of the syllogism stemming from God’s holiness and applying to the whole nation:

דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ:  כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Throughout the subsequent few perakim, various laws are directly related to holiness endowing things as holy and in contrast endowing things as non-holy. Eating a sacrifice not in accordance with the proper laws endows a holy thing with non-holiness. Swearing in God’s name falsely endows the name with non-holiness. Making your daughter a harlot endows her with non-holiness. Giving a child to Molech endows God’s holy name with non-holiness. Kohanim must be holy and not endow God’s name with non-holiness, including by making a bald spot, sacrificing if they have a blemish or marrying the wrong sort of women (which would also endow their children with non-holiness). A kohen’s daughter committing harlotry endows her father with non-holiness. A Kohen Gadol leaving the mishkan to mourn would endow the holy place with non-holiness. Later another category of holiness is added – holiness of time – in perek 23 regarding holidays and in perek 25, the jubilee year.

The differing uses of holiness reflect a spectrum within the term itself: in the early verses, holiness is a concept reserved for ritual and ritual objects (including kohanim). It seems to be more or less inherent – it can be conveyed by contact with other ritual items but other than that neither created nor destroyed. But what is equally striking is that it has no particular relationship to God or God’s traits – it is a thing unto itself.

This usage continues throughout the book but something new is introduced following the completion of the dedication of the mishkan as a whole or specifically the death of Nadav and Avihu. Holiness is reframed as an aspect of God and of the relationship with God, relating to a wide variety of ritual and less ritual commandments. Holiness is something that we are by default and by virtue of our connection to God, but it is also something that we can endow as well as diminish, not just in objects but also in oneself, in others, in times, in God and in God’s name.

At the crux of this shift is Moshe’s cryptic statement that God is made holy through those close to God and honored before the entire nation and God’s subsequent command to the kohanim to separate between holy and profane and to teach the laws to the people.

Both statements reflect some shift in scope from a narrow circle to a wider circle beyond the mishkan walls. But there seems to be a subtle difference between them: Moshe still frames holiness as reserved to a narrow group. This is also reflected in his command that Aharon and his remaining sons continue their service, while the rest of the nation mourns: the kohanim’s primary job is to remain ritual objects, distinct from the people. In contrast, God’s statement (interestingly delivered directly to Aharon, circumventing Moshe) assigns kohanim a more outward-facing role: the kohanim must separate between holy and non-holy and between pure and impure – and they must teach this to the people. A few verses later, the job of being holy via separating between pure and impure belongs to the people as a whole. Holiness is not only a ritual status, but also a character trait and an obligation, spreading outward from the ritual sphere to the entire nation and to all aspects of service.

Tobie Harris (SBM 05) lives in the Bakaa neighborhood of Jerusalem and works as an attorney for the Israel Competition Authority; in her spare time, she moderates the God Save Us from Your Opinion facebook group. 

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