Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

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.



[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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The Logic of Things and the Work of Our Hands

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Stephen Belsky

It’s clear why G-d wanted us to have a mishkan – it’s right there towards the end of Parashat Tetsavveh (Shemot 29:45-46):

So I will dwell within the Israelites and be their Gd.  They will know that I am Hashem, their Gd, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, so that I may dwell within them; I am Hashem, their Gd.

But the question of the week is – why did Gd want us to build a mishkan? After all, it could have just fallen from heaven, like the מן and the quail that sustained our ancestors in the Wilderness; or as Rashi imagines the Third Temple in his commentary on the Talmud, “built by the hands of Heaven”.  So why do we have to build it?

To be honest, we had the same question last week.  And two weeks before that.  And yet another week back, as well.  Four parshahs – full of lists, materials, and measurements, describing clothes, structures, fixtures, and tools, in sometimes painful and repetitive detail.  And now that we’ve reached the end of the shopping list, the final page of the blueprints, the question remains – Why did Gd want us to build a משכן?

Perhaps the answers lies in the “us”, the builders. What do we know about the ones who did the actual building?

A few chapters ago, Gd instructed Moshe, “You – speak to all the wise-hearted [minded] whose heart [mind] I have filled with the spirit of wisdom.”  According to the midrash Leḳaḥ Ṭov, the word “all” means that both men and women were included.  But the most salient characteristic, repeated here in Gd’s instructions to Moshe, is that they must be wise.

Does that mean that Moshe got philosophers, gurus, and scholars to do all the sawing, weaving, and engraving?  Maybe… but we’ll touch on that later.

First, we need to take a look at wisdom, at חכמה.  What is Wisdom, besides a statistic on your Dungeons & Dragons character sheet?  In his introduction to the Da‘at Miḳra’ commentary on Sefer Mishley, Israeli educator Yehuda Ḳil explains that Tanakh refers to four types of חכמה.

One we can call Smarts.  Intellect.  This is the חכמה that we are told King Solomon was blessed with, which he used to govern Israel.

Another is the Wisdom of Ethics and Morality; of Torah; the teachings that guide us to live lives of meaning, kindness, and justice, rooted in the love and awe of Gd.

A third type of Ḥokhma is what the books of Mishley and Iyyov call Gd’s Wisdom – the Divine plans and calculations that Gd uses to create and oversee the universe.

The last type of Wisdom is Skills – practical competence with tools and technology. The kind of חכמה you need to saw a beam straight; to dye wool the proper shade of blue with Murex sea-snail extract; to beat gold from a lump of metal into a candelabrum.  Tanakh first mentions this fourth type of wisdom here, by the builders of the mishkan: “All those of wise mind, which Gd filled with a spirit of wisdom.”

Why are Smarts and Ethics not enough?  Why are intellectual achievement and moral refinement insufficient to commune with the Divine and connect to the Wisdom that preceded creation?  Why was this fourth type of wisdom so essential?  Why get down and dirty with our hands in the sawdust, our faces soot-streaked from the forge, our clothes splattered with the blood of animals and the mucus of snails?

In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, philosopher, electrician, and motorcycle mechanic Dr Matthew Crawford explores the value of artisanship, of craft, of the trades – all what we would call the חכמה of the builders of the mishkan – and he reveals a paradox in the relationship between the objects we make, we create, we repair; and our selves who, in the terminology of the Torah, design the מחשבותand perform the מלאכה.

On the one hand, he quotes the words of Hannah Arendt:

The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.

I can make ḳiddush on a cup passed down for generations.  You can build a space probe and launch it to the moon, like the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet that recently lifted off from Cape Canaveral; or to farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond.  We can appreciate art painted on the walls of caves by Neanderthals, 65,000 years ago.  The mishkan itself was built, assembled, disassembled, and reassembled, over and over again, and lasted for hundreds of years.

It’s an awe-inspiring power – I may be a limited human being, but my work can transform the world!

Where there were tree trunks, now there are קרשים, structural beams.  Where there were animal skins, now there are יריעות, tenting sheets.  Where there was gold and silver, there are now altars and tables and sacrificial tools.  The act of Creation is Godly.  “You have made [us] but little less than the divine”, wrote King David in Tehillim.  Humanity is so close to Divinity.

And yet, on the other hand, Dr Crawford continues:

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self.  A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs.  At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption… Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things… practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on

If I’m a plumber, there is a single rubric by which my work can be evaluated – Does the toilet flush?  If I’m a mechanic, there is one way to know whether I’ve succeeded or failed – Does the car run?  And if I’m a volunteer in the great and holy national project of עם ישראלcalled “building the mishkan”, and I’m hammering out the כיור, the washbasin, or weaving the מגבעות, the turbans, or engraving the precious stones, or sawing the wall beams – I can’t do whatever I want with it; I have to submit to the design, to the blueprints, given by Gd through Moshe.  I have all the power, but I’m not in charge.  There’s a standard, a plan, an expectation; there are specs that must be fulfilled.

And so, through this worker’s paradox, this artisan’s dialectic – as our ancestors built the mishkan, בני ישראל came closer to Gd through והלכת בדרכיו, walking in Gd’s ways.  Just as Gd  creates and recreates the universe, so too do we make and remake the world Gd gave us.

And in those very same moments, with every swing of the hammer, the Israelites came closer to Gd also in humility, in recognizing that for all our powers, we don’t run the world.  There are rules for what the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to look like, inside and out; and there are rules for how we worship our Creator and for how we treat our fellow human beings.  As it says in both Tehillim and Mishley – the beginning of all חכמה is respect for Gd.

This week in parashat Peḳudey, we read how when the project is finished, and the Tabernacle, its fixtures, its tools, and the כהנים‘s clothes are all ready, Moshe blesses בני ישראל.  The Torah doesn’t tell us what he said, but according to Rabbi Me’ir as quoted in a number of midrashim, Moshe blessed the people, “May it be Gd’s will that the work of your hands be infused with the Divine presence.”  And then בני ישראל responded to the blessing with the words of Tehillim 90:17, just as we say almost every Saturday Night, as we leave that alternate dimension called Shabbat, and reënter the world of work, of מלאכה, of creative labor: “May the pleasantness of the Lord our Gd be upon us, when Gd establishes the work of our hands upon our efforts; oh Gd, establish it – the work of our hands!”

Rabbi Stephen Belsky (SBM 2012), a native New Yorker and a graduate of Pardes and YCT, currently lives in Suburban Detroit, where he teaches torah, builds sukkot, and works as a manufacturing manager and safety coördinator for a car wash supplies company.

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Religious Habit: Vice or Virtue

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Noah Cheses

A recent book club conversation on Shulem Deen’s book, “All Who Go Do Not Return” drilled into the following line: “Going to shul was like brushing my teeth or putting on my shoes. It was what I did, without giving it much thought” (184). We wondered together about the potential value and risk of religious rituals becoming automatic habits.

For the author of this memoir, the emphasis in his educational upbringing on habit and compliance left him overly vulnerable to critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. Once he challenged a few assumptions, the foundation of his religious identity began to crumble.

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Brachot 28b) underscore the danger of thoughtless religious habit: When you pray, don’t make your prayer a fixed activity…What is considered a fixed activity? Rabbanan say “Anyone whose prayer isn’t said in the language of beseeching.” Rabba and Rav Yosef both say “Anyone who isn’t able to introduce a new request or meaning when he prays.”

Going through the motions, without any emotion (“beseeching”) or fresh thinking (“new requests and meaning”), is not the way to lead a religious lifestyle.

While certain rabbinic texts warn us about the danger of religious habit, other texts extoll the power and value of habit. The Ein Yakov, a 16th century commentary on the non-legal parts of the Talmud, quotes a discussion about the most important verse in the entire Torah. A few options are suggested, from the shema to vehavta l’reacha kamocha.

A third verse is quoted from this end of Parshat Tezaveh which describes the Korban Tamid: “the first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon (29:39).” It would be hard to think of a less exciting verse than this one! The message of this verse is the value of consistency. The daily routine of mitzvoth, davening in the morning and the evening is what elevates us to the greatest spiritual heights. Like the concert cellist or Olympic skater, it takes years and years of great devotion and daily commitment to achieve spiritual excellence.

So how can we square away the seemingly conflicting texts in our tradition? Is religious habit a virtue or vice?

In typical Talmudic fashion, the answer is: IT DEPENDS. It depends on the person and the given habit; it depends on the context and the consequences. Habits are powerful forms of lasting behavior and as with most powerful things in our world, the force can be used for good or for bad. Repeated actions that harden into habits can become the best and worst components of our character.

The ideal—as suggested by the Rabbis in Berachot—is to aim for some sort of hybrid in which mitzvoth are performed with regularity and with renewal. With the investment of enough effort, even the same actions, day in and day out, can be made exciting and fresh.

Rabbi Noah Cheses (SBM 2006) is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Sharon.

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Gold, Giving, and Forgiving

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tamar Beer

Why does the Torah give us such a detailed account of the mishkan, down to its exact materials and dimensions? Why is it important for Bnei Yisrael to follow such a precise mishkan construction manual? Why, after an entire parshah of precise details, must the Torah in 25:9 command Mosheh

כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔ אֵ֚ת תַּבְנִ֣ית הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן וְאֵ֖ת תַּבְנִ֣ית כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ

Just as I show you – the structure of the tabernacle and the structure of all its vessels, (and) so you must make it.?

Do we really need this pasuk to inform us that it is crucial to follow God’s blueprint? Why is it so important to emphasize God’s command while constructing the tabernacle?

Answering these questions requires us to understand when this parshah was actually commanded.  Midrash Tanchuma suggests:

אֵימָתַי נֶאֶמְרָה לְמֹשֶׁה הַפָּרָשָׁה הַזּוֹ שֶׁל מִשְׁכָּן? בְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים עַצְמוֹ, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁפָּרָשַׁת הַמִּשְׁכָּן קוֹדֶמֶת לְמַעֲשֵׂה הָעֵגֶל.
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בְּרַבִּי שַׁלּוּם: אֵין מֻקְדָּם וּמְאֻחָר בַּתּוֹרָה,
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: נָעוּ מַעְגְּלֹתֶיהָ לֹא תֵדָע (משלי ה, ו) – מְטֻלְטָלוֹת הֵן שְׁבִילֶיהָ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה וּפָרָשִׁיּוֹתֶיהָ.

When was this parshah of the mishkan said to Moshe?
On Yom Kippur itself, even though the parshah of the mishkan precedes the making of the egel [in the text of the Torah].
Rabbi Yehuda son of Rabbi Shalom says: There is no chronological earlier or later in the Torah, as (Proverbs 5:6) says: “Her pathways wander in ways you cannot know” . The paths and parshiyot of Torah wander..

The Tanchuma asserts that the mishkan was actually commanded following the sin with the egel, in order to atone for it. However, it is curious that in order to atone for the day in which we sinned with the gold, we build a tabernacle of gold. Especially considering that Rosh haShannah 26a informs us that a Kohen Gadol is prohibited to wear gold in the Holy of Holies on Yom HaKippurim precisely so as not to remind G-d of the Calf:

דאמר רב חסדא: מפני מה אין כהן גדול נכנס בבגדי זהב? לפני ולפנים לעבוד עבודה, לפי שאין קטיגור נעשה סניגור.

For Rav Chisda says: Why doesn’t the Kohen Gadol enter [the Holy of Holies] wearing his golden clothes? Because a prosecutor can’t serve as a defense attorney.

Rashi clarifies:

אין קטיגור – זהב העגל ושופר של פרה נמי קטיגור דעגל הוא

“You can’t have a prosecutor…” – referring to the gold of the Calf

Since Yom HaKippurim is an atonement for the chet ha’egel, it is unwise to wear things which represent our connection to the sin. Instead, on this day, we choose to distance ourselves from this sin, and wear things which are not made from the very materials of our idolatry. Why then does God command us to create the mishkan- which is also intended to atone for our sin with the calf – out of gold!?

The Midrash Tanchuma nonethless makes the connection perfectly clear:

אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא:
יָבֹא זָהָב שֶׁבַּמִּשְׁכָּן וִיכַפֵּר עַל זָהָב שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה בּוֹ אֶת הָעֵגֶל,
שֶׁכָּתוּב בּוֹ: “וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ כָּל הָעָם אֶת נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב וְגוֹ”‘ (שמות לב, ג).
וּלְכָךְ מִתְכַּפְּרִין בַּזָּהָב,” וְזֹאת הַתְּרוּמָה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ מֵאִתָּם זָהָב.”
אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: כִּי אַעֲלֶה אֲרֻכָה לָךְ וּמִמַּכּוֹתַיִךְ אֶרְפָּאֵךְ (
ירמיה ל, יז

The Holy One Blessed is He said:
Let the gold of the tabernacle comes to atone for the gold that the egel was made out of,
regarding which it is written: “and all the people took off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aharon”
(Shmot 32:3).
Therefore we atone with gold –  “This is the gift that you must take from them – gold . . .”
And The Holy One Blessed is He said: “For I will bring healing to you, and I will use (the material of) your wounds to heal you”
(Jeremiah 30:17).

Why is the mishkan is specifically made out of the very same material as the egel in order to atone for it, when gold is a “prosecutor” for the sin?  Midrash Aggadah T’rumah 27:1 recounts a conversation between G-d and the Jews that may be helpful.

אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה:
רבונו של עולם, מלכי הגוים יש להם אהל ושלחן ומנורה ומקטר קטורת,
וכן הוא תכסיסי המלוכה, כי כל מלך צריך לכך,
ואתה הוא מלכנו גואלינו מושיענו – לא יהיה לפניך תכסיסי המלוכה, עד שיודע לכל באי העולם כי אתה הוא המלך?!
אמר להם:
בני, אותם בשר ודם צריכים לכל זה,
אבל אני איני צריך,
כי אין לפני לא אכילה ולא שתייה,
ואיני צריך מאור, ועבדי יוכיחו, כי השמש והירח מאירים לכל העולם, ואני משפיע עליהם מאורי,
ואני אשגיח עליכם לטובה בזכות אבותיכם.
אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה:
רבונו של עולם, אין אנחנו מבקשים את האבות, “כי אתה אבינו – אברהם לא ידענו, וישראל לא הכירנו.” (ישעיה סג:טז)
אמר להם הקב”ה:
אם כן – עשו מה שאתם חפצים, אלא עשו אותם כאשר אני מצוה אתכם

[Bnei] Yisrael said before The Holy One Blessed is He:
Master of the Universe, the kings of the nations have their tent, table, candelabra, and incense- burner, which are the standard royal accessories, because every king needs them.
and You are our king, our redeemer, and our saviour – should You do not have before You the royal accessories, so that the whole world will know that You are the king?
He said to them:
My children, those who are flesh and blood need all of this, but I don’t need it,
because I do not eat and I do not drink,
and I do not need light – as my servants prove – for the sun and the moon light the entire world, and I bestow them with my light.
And I will watch over you in the merit of your forefathers.
Bnei Yisrael said to The Holy One Blessed is He:
Master of the Universe, we do not wish our forefathers, “because You are our father – Avraham did not know us (in Egypt), and  Israel did not acknowledge us (in the WIlderness) (Isaiah 63:16).
The Holy One Blessed is He said:
If so – do what you wish, but do it in the manner that I command you.

It is natural for human beings to show appreciation and respect through giving of ourselves. However, while our gifts generally benefit the recipients, this is not so with God.

Perhaps Bnei Yisrael’s former idolatry stemmed from the desire to honor and serve God in a way that felt more intuitive to them. Without the ability to gift God with valuables- namely gold- they felt detached. Once they created the calf in order to fill this void, their heads became filled with the notions that they were somehow able to benefit God, and the activity quickly turned idolatrous. When God renews the covenant with Israel, He recognizes their need to serve Him in a way which they can relate to. However, if He were to put this in the hands of the nation, they would project their own images of physical kings and deities onto the concept of God.

This is why the nation requires such detailed instructions on how to create the mishkan. When every single detail of the construction is delineated by God, it is unlikely that the nation will lose sight of the object and purpose of their worship. If God had allowed them to bring their own creativity and personal ideas into building, they can quickly come to sin- however, with the overarching mentality of commandedness, they will be guarded from their sinful thoughts.

Perhaps this can shed light onto why the mishkan serves as an atonement for the egel ha’zahav, and why it was fitting for it to be made of gold. It is gold- the shiny, valuable metal, which Bnei Yisrael felt tempted to donate to God for sinful reasons. This is now the same gold that they use to distance themselves from sin. Through the commandment of the tabernacle, God enables the nation to reclaim their use of gold and giving in worship. He enables them to use gold in order to divert their temptation towards serving a physical god, and instead, to use gold for acceptable forms of worship created to reinforce the idea of God’s power and glory in a more accessible manner. In God’s infinite mercy, He offers us, not just atonement for our major sin regarding the calf, but also a vehicle to perform complete tshvua: the Tabernacle.


Tamar Beer (SBM 2018) is a student at Stern College.

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Brit HaAganot: The Story of the Super Bowls

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Ezra Newman

Parshat Mishpatim ends with a peculiar 11-verse story colloquially referred to as “Brit HaAganot.” In this story, Moshe is commanded to go up to God, while Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders bow from a distance. Moshe ascends, returns, and tells Bnei Yisrael “kol divrei Hashem,” to which they respond “Naaseh.” Moshe then writes down “kol divrei Hashem.” He makes an altar and 12 “Matzeivot,” one for each tribe, and has sacrifices brought on the altars. He throws half the blood from these sacrifices on the altar. He then reads Bnei Yisrael the “Sefer HaBrit,” to which they respond “Naaseh viNishmah.” He takes the rest of the blood and throws it on Bnei Yisrael, exclaiming that “this is the blood of the covenant between them and God over these devarim.” Then Moshe, Aharon, Nadan, Avihu and the Elders go up to God, where they see God, and God does not harm them. They eat and drink.

This is an unusual story, presented without context or explanation. The commentators ask: Did this story happen before or after Matan Torah? Why can the non-Moshe leaders go up to God at the end but not at the beginning? Why do Bnei Yisrael respond to being told “kol divrei Hashem” by saying “Nishma,” but to Moshe reading them the “Sefer HaBrit” by saying “Naaseh viNishmah?”

The best way to answer these specific questions involves focusing on a broader question: what is the purpose or message of this narrative?

Most commentators explain that this is the narrative of God establishing a covenant between God-self and Bnei Yisrael. Rabbi Chanoch Waxman of Yeshivat Har Etzion notes that the narrative ends with two classic tropes of covenant stories, the appearance of God to people and the sharing of a meal. But what is the content of this covenant? We are not given any details from “kol divrei Hashem!” Abarbanel writes that this is a covenant built around the Torah, which is established through the dual actions of Moshe reading the “Sefer HaBrit” for Bnei Yisrael and the throwing of the blood partly on the Mizbeach, representing God, and partly on the Matzeivot, representing the nation. Chizkuni adds that the splitting of the blood evokes the Brit Bein-HaBetarim, a covenant between God and Avraham. Rashi explains that this is a sort of conversion ritual for Bnei Yisrael, as the Talmud derives from here that conversion requires Hartzaat Damim, a sacrificial blood ritual (when the Temple is standing).

According to Rashi, this narrative actually happened before Matan Torah, and is out of place in the Torah. The standard covenant answer similarly supposes that this narrative is placed out of order in the Torah, as it actually describes a part of Matan Torah itself or an event that occurred directly after Matan Torah.

Ramban, however, kidarko bakodesh, explains that this narrative is appropriately chronologically placed in the Torah, and happened well after Matan Torah. I believe that Ramban’s reading is compelling, and that this narrative is not about God establishing a covenant with Bnei Yisrael or of them engaging in some sort of conversion ritual.

The purpose of this narrative is to illustrate the transition and dispersion of power within Bnei Yisrael after Matan Torah. Before Matan Torah, Moshe was the sole leader, but after this narrative, his leadership is dispersed among other members of Bnei Yisrael, namely Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders.

It is clear at first glance that this narrative revolves around the actions of Moshe. The word Moshe is the milah manchah (leitmotif) of this 11-verse narrative, appearing 7 times. Yet it is not immediately clear why Moshe is central here.

The message is gleaned through investigating the structure of this narrative. The unit has almost a perfect chiastic structure, but with each section containing a twist to demonstrate the shifting of power from Moshe to the other leaders.

  1. At the outset, Moshe is told to go up to God alone, while Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders bow from a distance. At the end of, , they all go up to God and see God. 
  2. Moshe is described by name as teaching the people the law and writing the Sefer HaBrit, but when he subsequently reads the Sefer HaBrit, his name is conspicuously absent.
  3. Moshe is in charge of bringing the sacrifices, but at the end of the narrative, all the leaders eat and drink together.
  4. In the first part of the narrative, Moshe alone throws the blood on the altar, signifying his special relationship with God, while in the second part of the narrative Moshe throws the blood on the nation, and in fact not necessarily on all of them; Ibn Ezra writes that Moshe only threw the blood on the Elders, as they represented the entire nation.

(י) ויראו את אלהי ישראל ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר וכעצם השמים לטהר:

יא) ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו ויחזו את האלהים

(א) ואל משה אמר עלה אל יקוק אתה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל והשתחויתם מרחק:

(ט) ויעל משה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל:

(ב) ונגש משה לבדו אל יקוק והם לא יגשו והעם לא יעלו עמו:

(ז) ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ויאמרו כל אשר דבר יקוק נעשה ונשמע:

(ג) ויבא משה ויספר לעם את כל דברי יקוק ואת כל המשפטים ויען כל העם קול אחד ויאמרו כל הדברים אשר דבר יקוק נעשה: (ד) ויכתב משה את כל דברי יקוק…

ויאכלו וישתו:

…ויבן מזבח תחת ההר ושתים עשרה מצבה לשנים עשר שבטי ישראל:

(ה) וישלח את נערי בני ישראל ויעלו עלת ויזבחו זבחים שלמים ליקוק פרים:

(ח) ויקח משה את הדם ויזרק על העם ויאמר הנה דם הברית אשר כרת יקוק עמכם על כל הדברים האלה:

(ו) ויקח משה חצי הדם וישם באגנת וחצי הדם זרק על המזבח:

There is still one unanswered question from among those raised at the beginning of this dvar torah: how do we explain the change in Bnei Yisrael’s response from “Naaseh” when they were told of “Kol Divrei Hashem,” to “Naaseh ViNishma” when they are read the “Sefer HaBrit?”

I think that our understanding of the purpose of the narrative can shed new light unto this question. Traditionally, the word “ViNishma” is interpreted here to refer to the word of God, “we will heed the word of God.” But I think that it’s more appropriately interpreted to refer here to the other leaders of Bnei Yisrael. The people have not changed their attitude to the word of God – they said “Naaseh” to that before, and they say “Naaseh” to that again. But now, they are recognizing that they must also heed not only Moshe relaying the word of God, but also the teachings and leadership of Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders, and to this they are saying “ViNishma.”

Ezra Newman (SBM 2013) is currently in his third year at Harvard Law School.


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The Timing of Eliezer’s Naming

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jason Strauss

When naming a new child, parents consider numerous factors. They may choose a name that belonged to an ancestor, that matches the name of someone they admire, because of the meaning of the name, or just for aesthetic purposes. In the Torah, babies are often given names that are meaningful to the parent, sometimes reflecting something happening in their lives and sometimes reflecting the nature of the child.

For example, the Torah implies that Cain’s name derives from his mother’s joint creation of a new man together with Hashem (Genesis 4:1). Eve later names Seth because of his role a replacement for the son(s) that Eve lost due to Cain’s murder of Abel (Genesis 4:25). Noah is so named because of his parents’ hope that he would ease their lives despite the cursed land (Genesis 5:29). Similar etiologies are provided by the Torah for the names of Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, all of Jacob’s sons, and even Moses.

Parshat Yitro similarly explains Moses’s intentions in naming his sons Gershom and Eliezer. But the placement of these naming explanations raises several questions. First of all, hadn’t the Torah mentioned the etiology of Gershom’s name previosuly, shortly before recording Moses’ encounter with the fiery bush that wasn’t being consumed? Second, the Torah usually gives the meaning behind a child’s name immediately preceding or immediately following theirbirth. Why is the explanation of Eliezer’s name recorded at least months, if not years, after his birth? Why does the Torah reserve informing us about Eliezer’s name until this moment, when Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children to join Israel at Mt. Sinai?

One potential answer to these questions can be given via another question. Gershom is named in response to Moses’ status as a stranger in Midian, as being away from his birthplace (Egypt) and without his people (Israel) (See Malbim). Eliezer, though, is named because of Moses’ escape from Pharaoh’s sword, which took place before he arrived in Midian. Why are the orders of their names reversed?  Why didn’t Moses name his first son Eliezer, and his second son Gershom, so that the story told through their names would be chronological?

Several commentators, including Seforno, Bechor Shor, and Riva, suggest that Moses originally did not want to give his children names that would connect him to his escape from Egypt, lest word get back to Pharaoh and put his family in danger. Gershom, who was born before the burning bush, therefore has a name that does not clearly recall that episode. However, once G-d informs Moses that Pharaoh had died, he feels comfortable naming his son in light of his salvation from Pharaoh’s sword. Along the same lines, perhaps we can suggest that the Torah delays telling us Eliezer’s name because only now, after Pharaoh and his army have been defeated at the Red Sea and can never reach Moses and his family, is Eliezer’s name’s essence fully true.

Ramban takes a different approach to this question. He acknowledges that when Moses is confronted by an angel and is nearly killed, it appears as if the son who Zipporah circumcises is Gershom, the only child that had been mentioned until that point. In fact, the Mechilta suggests that Jethro only allowed Moses to marry Zipporah on the condition that he would not circumcise his first son, i.e. Gershom, and the angel was going to kill him as punishment for fulfilling that promise. But Ramban points out that another Midrash Aggadah states that it was Eliezer, not Gershom, who was circumcised on the road to Egypt. He surmises that because Eliezer was born and circumcised under those difficult circumstances, he was not given a name until after the splitting of the Red Sea, at which point the family was safe and Moses could truly say that G-d had saved him from Pharaoh’s sword. According to Ramban, the reason the Torah mentions Eliezer’s name now, rather than at his birth, is because he wasn’t named until he and his grandfather his father at Mt. Sinai.

Another justification for the delay of Eliezer’s naming until Parshat Yitro can be found in the Midrash Tanchuma. The midrash points out that the Torah uses an unusual phrasing to refer to Eliezer as Moses’ other son. Instead of referring to Gershom as the name of Moses’ and Zipporah’ first son (shem ha-echad) and Eliezer as the name of their second son (shem ha-sheni), the Torah designates them both as shem ha-echad. The simplest explanation, as Ibn Ezra notes, is that this simply means “the name of one is Gershom” and “the name of the other one is Eliezer.”  Nonetheless, the Midrash understands the labeling of Eliezer as “ha-echad” to be a hint at additional meaning behind Eliezer’s name.

The midrash explains that when Moses ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai, he saw that G-d was quoting the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’s opinion that the calf whose neck is broken as part of the atonement ceremony for an unsolved murder (egla arufa) must be one year old while the red cow (para aduma) used to purify those impure from contact with the dead must be two years old. Moses protests that G-d is both the Creator and Owner of the world – why should He need to cite the opinion of human beings about His own laws? G-d responds, “One day there will be a righteous man named Eliezer who will be the first to engage in the laws of the red cow to render this ruling.” Moses then prays, “May it be Your will that he descend from me,” a request which G-d then swears will be fulfilled in the future.

Perhaps Tanchuma is implicitly explaining why Eliezer’s name appears in the context of Parshat Yitro; Moses only discovers the greatness of his son Eliezer’s descendant Rabbi Eliezer while on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah, which takes place in this parsha. Furthermore, Kli Yakar (Numbers 19:2) asks why Moses specifically asks, in the Midrash, to be the progenitor of Rabbi Eliezer because of his innovative study of egla arufa and para aduma – why not ask to be the ancestor of a Tanna focused on a different mitzvah? He answers that Moses wanted to be associated with those commandments because of the personal courage and sacrifice he displayed in his defense of Israel after their sin with the Golden Calf. The para aduma is an atonement for the sin of idolatry committed with the Golden Calf and the egla arufa is an atonement for the sin of murder, which the rabbis say Israel perpetrated in their murder of Hur. Since the sin of the Golden Calf took place at Mt. Sinai, perhaps it is only appropriate that Moses’s descendant is afforded the name Eliezer at Mt. Sinai as a reference to Moses role in saving the Jewish People from G-d’s wrath.

The Talmud (BT Brachot 7a) also asserts that despite Moses’s rejection of G-d’s plan to wipe out Israel in response to the Golden Calf and build a new nation from Moses’s children, G-d’s blessing to Moses that his descendants would become many was still fulfilled. The verse (I Chronicles 23:17) states that Eliezer’s son Rehabiah’s children “were very numerous,” which the Talmud interprets to mean more than 600,000. Ha’amek Davar suggests that this could be another reason why Eliezer is referred to as “shem ha-echad” despite being the second son; he is the main progenitor of Moses’s many descendants. Perhaps this, too, can explain why Eliezer’s name is only mentioned at Mt. Sinai, where this promise about Moses’s many descendants would be made in response to the Sin of the Golden Calf.


Rabbi Jason Strauss (SBM 2012-2014) is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and teaches Judaic Studies at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.


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