Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

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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The Hidden Relationship of Kibbud Av Vaeim

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz

Shemot 21:17 and 21:19 discuss special obligations toward parents.  An adult child who hits or curses his parents is liable for the death penalty. Sandwiched between these two pesukim is a statement that one who kidnaps and sells any other human being is liable for the death  penalty.

This is a bizarre juxtaposition. Why is kidnapping placed in a section focused on honoring one’s parents?

Talmud Kidushin 31 presents several archetypes of kibbud av vaeim (=honoring parents). Dama ben Netinah famously refuses to wake his father despite the severe financial consequences for showing such a high level of deference to his father’s needs (Kiddushin 31a).  Rabbi Tarfon would kneel by his mother’s bedside, allowing himself to be stepped on to ease her climbing in and out of bed – and the Talmud concludes that his dedication was insufficient, and the mark of aqequate kibbud av vaeim is standing by quietly as one’s mother throws one’s money into the sea.   The message seems to be that the way we directly treat our parents is the most important aspect of our fulfillment of kibbud av vaeim.

The great  Spanish sage Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) uses the juxtaposition between kidnapping and honoring parents to modify this message.  He explains that the prohibition against kidnapping and selling another is inserted as a subtle reference to Yosef and his brothers, whose sibling rivalry tore their family apart and caused unspeakable pain to their father.  

Abarbanel’s method of interpretation here is fascinating and creative. He reads a halakhic verse as an allusion to a story, and and then learns a Halachic principle from the story.

Sibling relationships are often a volatile mixture of love, respect, jealousy and resentment. One might think that these relationships are voluntary commitments. One can embrace them as long as they remain positive and beneficial, but one has the right to discard them if the relationship goes south.

Abarbanel understands the reference to Yosef as the Torah’s way of teaching us that these complicated relationships are not optional. They are part and parcel of the mitzvah of kibbud av vaeim. As much as it means for parents to have children who show them love and respect, it is often just as important for them to see their children treat each other the same way. Often parents get no greater pleasure than seeing their children have a close bond, be it in childhood or adulthood.

After Yaakov’s passing, Yosef’s brothers become nervous. The Torah states (Genesis 50:15)

וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף כִּי מֵת אֲבִיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוּ יִשְׂטְמֵנוּ יוֹסֵף וְהָשֵׁב יָשִׁיב לָנוּ אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר גָּמַלְנוּ אֹתוֹ

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said,  “Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.”

The brothers assume that the only reason Yosef never enacted revenge against them was out of a commitment to kibbud av.  Yosef kept up the appearance of a positive relationship with his brothers for his father’s sake. After Yaakov dies, the brothers concoct the story that Yaakov gave them a message to tell Yosef not to harm his brothers. They understood how central the brothers’ relationship was to kibbud av, and assumed that keeping it in that context was the best way to restrain Yosef.  Abarbanel’s reading suggests that they may have been correct.

Our relationship with our siblings can be the greatest manifestation of kibbud av vaeim. But taken to its logical end, Abravanel challenges us to ask ourselves how all the relationships in our life impact our parents and our obligation to honor them.


Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz (SBM 2000) is a member of the faculty of Yeshiva University High School for Girls.

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The Decalogue in Rabbinic Literature

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dr. Malka Simkovich

This week’s parsha features a passage that in many ways, is the most central document in Israelite history. This passage, Exodus 20:1–13, is known as the Decalogue, or The Ten Commandments (although some of these commandments are actually statements). In the centuries following the dramatic moment of divine revelation at Sinai, the Decalogue took hold as the central articulation of Israelite theology.  Its contents, along with the ethical injunctions in Vayikra 19, were paraphrased and referenced in many passages preserved in biblical prophetic literature. And by the Second Temple period, the Decalogue was not only a central idea, but a liturgical document.  Despite its importance in the biblical and late Second Temple periods, the Decalogue is not preserved in rabbinic liturgy. Nor is it of central theological interest in rabbinic literature. While its verses have retained an important place in Jewish tradition, they have also been eclipsed by a different statement, one uttered not by God,  but by Moshe. This passage is, of course, the Shema (Deut 6:4–9). In order to understand why the Shema came to replace the Decalogue, it is helpful to explore how Jews and early Christians living during this period related to this text.

In the Second Temple period, the Decalogue had pride of place in Jewish thought and liturgy. Tefillen discovered at Qumran, the archaeological site adjacent to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, contain parchment that records both the Shema and the Decalogue. These tefillen were likely used in the first century BCE or first century CE, when the Qumran sect flourished. Other Jewish documents written during these two centuries also mention the Decalogue. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a wisdom text that was written in Greek by a Jew who probably lived in Alexandria, Egypt, opens with a paraphrasing of the Decalogue: the writer mentions every injunction of the ten commandments except the proscription to keep the Sabbath (Pseudo-Phocylides, 1–18).  A second document, which is part of a twelve-book collection probably written and assembled by Jews in the late Second Temple period called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, also paraphrases the Decalogue (Testament of Issachar 5:1-5). Even the great first century CE Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria was fascinated with the Decalogue: he wrote an entire treatise devoted to interpreting it.

Early Christian documents whose authors had not fully severed their ties to Judaism refered to the Decalogue as an authoritative text that was foundational to their faith. The early Christian text written in Greek known as the Didache, was written in the late first or second century, cites the twelve apostles of Jesus as paraphrasing the Decalogue to their students. Likewise, the third century Christian document called the Didascalia, which also purports to record the teachings of the apostles, does the same (Didache 2:1–3; Didascalia 26:9–10).

But by the early rabbinic period, the Decalogue was falling out of favor in some Jewish circles. Even as Christians were making reference to the Decalogue, Jews were disputing whether to recite it regularly in their synagogues.

The decision to stop reciting the Decalogue after the Shema is well documented. The Bavli explains that the daily liturgy used to comprise the Decalogue, the Shema, and the Amidah, but the recitation of the Decalogue was abolished because of the heretics (minim) (b. Berakhot 12a). Perhaps the concern was that the heretics would argue that the recitation of the Decalogue proved that only the portions of the Torah that the Israelites heard directly from God were true (Rashi on Berakhot 12a). Or perhaps the rabbinic concern was that reading the Decalogue would affirm sectarian claims that only the Written Law was authoritative, whereas the Oral Law was not. But these explanations do not explain why the Shema continued to be recited. After all, the Shema is part of the Written Law as well.

Perhaps the reason why the Decalogue fell out of favor in lieu of the Shema is that for the most part, the Decalogue comprises ethical instructions that, with the exception of the injunction to keep the Sabbath, all of humankind are expected to observe, whereas the Shema is a theological statement that affirms the election of Israel by God. By the early rabbinic period, the seven Noahide laws had taken form  which included some of the statements of the Decalogue (t.Abodah Zara 9:4; b.Sanhedrin 56a; earlier articulations of these laws in the second century BCE document Jubilees 7:20–21, as well as Sibylline Oracle 4:24–39, a document probably composed in the late Second Temple period). This led towards a sense that the Decalogue had universalist elements in it.

Even the mention of the Sabbath in the Decalogue would not have necessarily been viewed by the rabbis as particularistic. In the Roman period, many Gentiles observed the Sabbath without converting to Judaism. These people were called God-fearers (see, for instance, Juvenal, Satires, 14.96–106). The Decalogue, then, may have been viewed as potentially applicable to all of humankind from start to finish.

A second difference between the Decalogue and the Shema is that the Decalogue is a document that was spoken by God, whereas the Shema was spoken by Moshe. The Shema, then, represents the affirmation of all Israelites to commit themselves to a covenantal relationship, whereas the Decalogue represents the divine injunction to do so.

Given the fact that the Decalogue has been subjugated to the Shema, how might we appreciate its importance in our tradition today?

I believe that both the Decalogue and the Shema are foundational to Jewish thought. At the moment that the Israelites were leaving Egypt and making the transition from slavery to freedom, they needed to hear a universalist message: a message that while they were chosen by the One True God to be His elect people, this same God that had just chosen them had jurisdiction over the entire world. Indeed, the major trope of the Exodus story is that God controls the entire earth (see, among others, Exodus 8:6, 8:18, 9:14, 9:29, 10:2, 14:1, 14:18). Forty years later, a new generation of Israelites on the cusp of entering into Israel needed to hear a different message: As they entered the an unknown land, aware that they were embarking on inevitable military conflicts and the loss of their main conduit to God, Moshe, the Israelites needed to hear that God was committed to a relationship with them that, while it could include suffering as punishment for sins, would endure for perpetuity.

The community of Israelites who entered the land of Israel and their descendants held fast to the idea that God was committed to an eternal relationship with them. This relationship was reflected in the relational text of the Shema, in which the Israelites affirmed that God was our God, rather than the Decalogue, which affirmed that God was the God—the God who had taken the Israelites out of Egypt. Since the Decalogue was spoken by God and the Shema was spoken by Moshe, the Shema represented the Israelite side of the covenantal relationship—the side that required the Israelites to continually affirm their identities in light of their connection to God.  

The rabbis understood that the Decalogue and the Shema were given at different turning points in Israelite history, bore different theological messages, and reflected two different voices. Aware that non-rabbinic communities were espousing views that they regarded as heretical, and that these same communities were laying claim to their holy texts, the rabbis turned to the document that they believed represented their own voice, and their own commitment to serving God, rather than the voice of God that proscribed them to do so.

Shabbat shalom!

Dr. Malka Simkovich (SBM 2006) is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.


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Theology of Miracles

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ariel Kelman

The default understanding of miracles should be that they are supernatural. After all, that’s what distinguishes a Miracle from a lucky event. While this topic has received much attention, particularly through the lenses of Rambam and Ramban; throughout my religious education miracles have often been presented from a naturalistic perspective – as events consistent with natural cause-and-effect that simply seemed incredibly unlikely at the time they occurred. Why the tendency toward naturalistic explanations?

Given the success of modern science, religion – when it engages with modern science, as I believe it should – occasionally reacts to the increased scope and success of scientific theories by adopting a posture that credits God with creation of the laws of nature, but removes Him from its daily workings. Sure, on a metaphysical level, Hashem’s will to keep the world going may be necessary – but miraculous interventions!? That would go against empirical science – a big no-no for a modern Jew.

According to this view, adopting a naturalistic understanding of miracles implies a ‘greater’ God than if He performed miracles – the naturalist contends that His work is so perfect that it doesn’t need any tweaking.

Yet the naturalistic approach misses out on something crucial. At rock bottom, there can be no difference between a “small” miracle and a “large” one – if the causal order has been broken, what difference does it make? So if there is any Divine intervention in the world, then we must acknowledge that it cannot be part of the natural order – in fact, that is almost true by definition.

It cannot be denied that the world does seem to operate like clockwork – and even the Torah occasionally emphasizes the natural side of a miracle. As Shadal points out (Shmot 14:21), what was the need for a nightly wind if the entire splitting of the sea was miraculous? Still,the phrase והמים להם חומה מימינם ומשמאלם should put to rest any doubt about whether the splitting of the sea did violate the ‘laws of nature’.

So how are we to view ancient miracles? It seems to me that the “peshat” of a miracle is just that – a non-natural occurrence. And given that I do not see a compelling way to negate this idea in a religiously consistent manner, I’d be loathe to give that up.

But the real challenge presented by this issue is more fundamental. If we had all been witness to an obviously supernatural miracle, it’s fairly unlikely we’d be tempted to naturalize them. But while, for example, the Six Day War was a tremendous and ‘miraculous’ victory, it is not a demonstration of the obvious nature-breaking power of God. The religious zionist sees God’s hand at work as a result of being a religious zionist, rather than an atheist coming to God through the miracle. The inherent nature of the victory is not enough to inspire absolute confidence in God’s ultimate power, as יצאית מצרים did, both for our ancestors and the Egyptians.

When we formulate a religious outlook and tackle the idea of miracles, we should be clear about what a miracle means. I don’t think that Biblical accounts of miracles can be explained naturalistically, and see insufficient reason for doing so; but as with every issue, argument will enrich our understanding. Hopefully these ideas stimulate a deeper discussion, crucial to forming a rich perspective on the theological topics we encounter while reading and learning Torah.
Ariel Kelman (SBM 2016) is currently studying engineering at University of Toronto.

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On the Mechanics of Skipping

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman

Parshat Bo is where the Jewish people are given their first commandments as a new nation. They are commanded about the קרבן פסח – the Passover Offering – that they must bring in Egypt for the first time. During this time, G-d will be carrying out the last of the 10 Plagues in Egypt, but the blood that was to be spread on the doorposts of Jewish houses would also serve as their protection:

וְעָבַ֣ר יְהוָה֮ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ עַל־הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף׃

(שמות יב:כג)

For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will PaSaCH the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.

(Exodus 12:23)

While the word פסח is often translated as “pass over”, its translation in this context is not clear to many of the commentators. Rashi explains the word as either “to have mercy on” or “to skip.” R. Amnon Bazak (as heard in a class in Machon Herzog) ties the two terms together with the observation that skipping involves not only the object that is passed over, but also an object that is landed on. Here also, the Jewish houses are not being passed over, they are being landed on. The Midrash in שמות רבה seems to support this idea. On the words “וראה את הדם,” it says “כביכול עמד בפתח ודוחה המשחית, שלא יגוף את ישראל” “If one could say such things, [G-d] will stand in the doorway and push out the Destroyer, so that it cannot strike Israel”.

This interpretation completely shifts the role G-d plays in this plague, as well as how He relates to the Jewish people. Instead of G-d’s main role being to go through Egypt as a destructive force, avoiding Jewish houses to not cause damage, He is, instead the protector of the Jewish people from the destructive force that is present throughout Egypt on this night. “To have mercy on” here is not a passive act of sparing Jewish households, it is an active stand on G-d’s part to choose and protect the Jewish people.

With the talk of skipping, it is unsurprising that מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל links this point with the פסוק in שיר השירים:

ק֣וֹל דּוֹדִ֔י הִנֵּה־זֶ֖ה בָּ֑א מְדַלֵּג֙ עַל־הֶ֣הָרִ֔ים מְקַפֵּ֖ץ עַל־הַגְּבָעֽוֹת׃

(שה”ש ב:ח)

Hark! My beloved! There he comes, leaping over mountains, Bounding over hills.

(Song of Songs 2:8)

The Midrash comments here “שהקב”ה מדלג על בתי בני ישראל במצרים, שנאמר קול דודי הנה זה בא מדלג על ההרים…” “That G-d skipped on the houses of Israel in Egypt, as it says ‘Hark! My beloved! There he comes, leaping over mountains…’” In addition to bringing up the two ideas of G-d taking mercy on the Jews in Egypt and skipping on their houses, the Midrash ties the idea of חפזון, hurriedness, to this part of שיר השירים. This idea is mentioned in שמות as well, when it talks about how the Jews have to eat the קרבן פסח, but here, the verse is used to talk about the hurriedness of the שכינה. Once again, we see G-d’s investment in this new developing relationship as He tells us: בא.

Pnina Grossman (SBM 2012) is a Sharon native and a current student at the City College of New York studying Mechanical Engineering.

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