Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

With Distinction: Egyptian Exodus and the Levitical Letter of the Law

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier

Throughout Sefer Vayikra, including several times in this week’s double Parsha, we find an invocation of the Exodus to justify certain laws. To give one example:

ויקרא פרק כה

:לה) וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ)

:לו) אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ)

:לז) אֶ֨ת־כַּסְפְּךָ֔ לֹֽא־תִתֵּ֥ן ל֖וֹ בְּנֶ֑שֶׁךְ וּבְמַרְבִּ֖ית לֹא־תִתֵּ֥ן אָכְלֶֽךָ)

:לח) אֲנִ֗י יְקֹוָק֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לָתֵ֤ת לָכֶם֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִֽים)

Exodus 25

35 And if your brother becomes poor, and his means fail, then you shall uphold him: as a stranger and a settler he shall live with you. 

36 Take no interest or profit from him; but fear your God; so that your brother may live with you. 

37 Do not give him your money with interest, nor give him foods for profit. 

38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. 

The prohibition against taking financial advantage of one’s impoverished fellow by charging interest appears to be justified by God’s historical role in taking the People of Israel out of Egypt. Later in the Parsha, we find the manumission of an Eved Ivri (25:41-42, 54-55) also justified by the Exodus, and specifically by the fact that we are servants of God, and, as Hazal gloss (bKidd 22b), not slaves of one another. During both the blessings (26:12-13) and the mitigation of the curses (26:44-45) of the curses in Behukotai, again the Exodus is invoked. What is the significance of this oft-repeated assertion?

On the simplest level, the Exodus is part of the foundational covenant of the Jewish People. The Covenant at Sinai may have sealed the theological-national deal, but the special relationship between Israel and God was principally forged when God took Israel out of Egypt. It is of course relevant that the Ten Commandments begin with אנכי ה’ א-להיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slaves.” (Ex. 20:2). See the commentaries on this verse, including Rashi’s very clear note: כדאי היא ההוצאה שתהיו משועבדים לי, “The Exodus is sufficient to subjugate you to me.”

But the reference to the Exodus may offer an additional reason, as well. The Talmud (bBM 61b) has a fascinating and enigmatic comment pertaining to several cases of Egypt invocation, including one in our Parsha:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

אמר רבא: למה לי דכתב רחמנא יציאת מצרים ברבית, יציאת מצרים גבי ציצית, יציאת מצרים במשקלות? אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור – אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ממי שתולה מעותיו בנכרי ומלוה אותם לישראל ברבית, וממי שטומן משקלותיו במלח, וממי שתולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא.

רבינא איקלע לסורא דפרת. אמר ליה רב חנינא מסורא דפרת לרבינא: יציאת מצרים דכתב רחמנא גבי שרצים למה לי? – אמר ליה: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור, אני עתיד ליפרע ממי שמערב קרבי דגים טמאין בקרבי דגים טהורין, ומוכרן לישראל.

Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 61b

Rava said: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [the prohibition of] interest (Lev. 25:38); regarding [the commandment] of tzitzit (Num. 15:41); and regarding [the prohibition of unfair] weights and measures (Lev. 19:36)? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who “hangs” his money on a gentile and lends it to a Jew with interest [while the Jew thinks he is in fact borrowing from a gentile]; from one who hides his weighs in salt [at a disadvantage to the customer]; and one who ties kal’ilin (i.e. non-tekhelet blue) to his clothes and says it is tekhelet.

Ravina went to Sura on the Euphrates. Rav Hanina of Sura on the Euphrates asked Ravina: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [prohibited] crawling animals (Lev. 11:45)? [Ravina] said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who mixes non-kosher fish innards with kosher fish innards and then sells them to a Jew.

Here, the Exodus is invoked not for its historical value in understanding the relationship between God and Israel, but as an attestation to God’s extraordinary powers of distinction. The plague striking the paternal firstborn required not only great lethal power, but also the most precise paternity test known to man. The Exodus, proving this divine quality, can then serve as a cautionary tale for these cases. Do you think it doesn’t matter who is actually lending with interest? Well, it matters to God, and God is capable of finding out fairly easily. Who cares if it’s tekhelet blue or non-tekhelet blue? Can anyone determine if my 1 oz. weight is actually .9 oz.? Aren’t all fish intestines equally abominable? No! God has commanded these laws, and God has the capacity to make extremely fine distinctions, so you had better be careful!

As the Maharal (ad. loc.) puts it:

דברה תורה נגד יצר הרע, שיצרו של אדם גובר עליו לומר מי ידע דבר זה, ועל זה אמר אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ במצרים, אני הוא שעתיד להפרע, לפיכך יכוף יצרו [ה]מסית אותו לדבר זה

The Torah is responding to the evil inclination, which overpowers a person, asking “who will know [whether you did the permitted or prohibited action]?” In response to this, God says “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt etc., and I am the one to pay recompense.” Thus the evil inclination will be overcome.

There is a problem here, however. Many more than just these four commandments are occasioned by a mention of the Exodus from Egypt. Is there anything particularly holding them together? Why invoke particularly these four cases? Doesn’t this apparent arbitrariness weaken the claim? Some commentators, wishing to respond to this question, raise the possibility that all of these cases are interpersonal. You might think that you can con others by shaving off weights, hiding the true person behind the loan, or mixing up fish intestines, but God knows and is keeping score. (To a certain extent, this approach is similar to that of the string of Rashis on אני ה’ in Leviticus 19, which includes one of our cases.) This attempt has a major weakness – the case of Tzitzit. Given that the Gemara says nothing of selling these Tzitzit to unsuspecting customers, and only speaks of wearing them, it seems that not all cases are interpersonal and some relate to the and personal-Divine realm. The Maharal offers this rebuttal. But then we are left with our question: why are these the only examples provided?

In a related piece, the Maharal’s offers an answer in a characteristically brilliant disquisition:

חידושי אגדות למהר”ל בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

יציאת מצרים דכתיב בשרצים וכו’. פי’ באלו ד’ מצות נאמר יציאת מצרים ולפי מה שמפרש בגמרא אצל כל חד אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ ולפי זה היה גם כן ראוי לכתוב אצל חלב אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור אני שעתיד להבחין מי שמוכר חלב ואמר שהוא שומן וכיוצא בזה וכמעט בכל (ה)מצוה ומצוה היה יכול לכתוב כך, אבל אני אומר כי מיוחדים אלו המצוות להבחנה כי אצל שקצים כתיב להבדיל בין הטמא ובין הטהור נמצא כי מצוה זאת מיוחדת להבדלה, וכן משקל הוא עצמו עשוי להבחין הדבר ששוקל וכן הרבית הוא להבחין ישרא’ דכ’ לנכרי תשיך ולאחיך לא תשיך והנה יש כאן הבדל, וציצית הוא להבחנה כדכ’ וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ ועיקר תכלת הוא ההבחנה כמ”ש מאימתי קורין שמע בשחרית משיכיר בין תכלת שבה ללבן שבה. הרי אלו ד’ מצות הם להבחנה וכאשר יצאו ישראל ממצרים יצאו במדריגה העליונה ששם הבחנת הכל כי הוציא השם יתברך את ישראל ממצרים ולקחם לו לעם ובזה הבדיל השם יתברך בין ישראל לאומות. ולפיכך היה יציאת מצרים ע”י הבחנה עד כי היה מבחין הקדוש ברוך הוא בין טפה לטפה, שהכל היה בהבחנה.

Hiddushei Agadot of Maharal, Bava Metzia 61b

By each of these cases the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned, which the Gemara explains is based on God saying “I am the one who distinguished…” Therefore it would have been appropriate to include the law of prohibited fats: “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who sells forbidden fats and says they are permitted fats!” And almost every commandment could have this [formulation]!? Rather, I think that these commandments are [chosen because they are] particularly focused on distinction. Regarding forbidden crawling animals it says “To distinguish between the impure and the pure” (Lev. 11:47). It emerges that this commandment is particularly focused on distinction. And similarly for weights – [the institution of weights] itself is based on distinguishing the [size of the] item being measured. The prohibition of interest is meant to distinguish Israel, as it says “Charge interest to the gentile, but do not charge interest to your brother” (Deut. 23:21), and here is a distinction! Tzitzit is meant to distinguish, as it says “And you shall see it and remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Num. 15:39). The primary point of tekhelet blue is one of distinction, as it says “From what time can one read Shema in the morning? From the time one can distinguish between its tekhelet blue and its white” (mBer 1:2). These four commandments are all about distinction! And when Israel left Egypt they left on the highest level, of absolute distinction, because God took them out of Egypt and chose them as God’s nation! Thus God distinguished Israel from the nations! Therefore the Exodus from Egypt was accomplished through distinction, to the point that the Holy One, Blessed be He, was distinguishing between every drop [of semen], as everything was distinguished.

The unifying theme among these commandments invoking Egypt is that they are thematically tied to the concept of distinction. It is not that one can imagine cases involving halakhically significant but nearly inscrutable distinctions.  One could likely do that for many commandments. Rather, these commandments are distinct, and therefore chosen by the Talmud, because they are all about distinction: weighing a precise measurement fairly; telling colors apart, separating Kosher from non-Kosher, and distinct economic laws for Jews and non-Jews. So of course the theme of “I am God, the one who distinguished,” will apply. And the Exodus from Egypt is emblematic of distinction beyond just the “Divine DNA test” to find the real firstborn Egyptians. The very process of the Exodus, where God takes Israel out of Egypt, is the greatest distinction one could imagine, and it is the nature of Israel’s chosenness! Of course, this fundamentally separation-based process will then be extremely precise in determining who is a firstborn Egyptian and who is not. The Maharal’s incredible re-reading of the Gemara, then, is complete: The Gemara only discusses symptoms of these four commandments and of the Exodus by finding particular cases of distinction; we are expected to figure out for ourselves that each of these not only are scenarios where minute distinctions may entail, but that their fundamental nature is all about distinction!

The Meshekh Hokhmah adds another piece to this puzzle in understanding the Talmudic passage:

משך חכמה שמות פרק יב פסוק ט

כיון שההשגחה חלה בפרטי פרטיות, תדע כי ישקיף ה’ וירא כל מפעל כל מצעד, ואז דבוק קנין האלקי בעם ישראל, שהוא בן בכורו, וקנה אותם לעבדים. כי פרעה וכל העם מהרו לשלחם מן הארץ, וחיוב כל המצוות תלה השם יתברך בעת הזאת.

Meshekh Hokhmah to Exodus 12:9

Since Divine Providence occurs at a level of such minute detail, one will know that God examines and sees every action and every step. Thus the Divine Acquisition of God’s nation Israel is complete. Israel is God’s firstborn, whom God acquired as a servant, after Pharaoh and his nation tried to speedily send them from the land. God ties the obligation in all commandments to this time [of Egypt].

The precision of these commandments and God’s enforcement thereof is no accident. Aside from encouraging Jews to be meticulous in their observance, it is also an important aspect of Jewish religious identity. God not only distinguished the Egyptian firstborn from their siblings, but also Israel, God’s own firstborn, from the nations. The degree of precision in this providential Divine Distinction defines not only these four commandments with particular focus on exactitude, but the entire Torah, and the relationship between God and Israel along with it.

I will add one short thought to the astute Acharonic assertions. Over the past 2000 years, Judaism has been much maligned as a hyper-legalistic religion, as focusing on the details of the law rather than on the its spirit, losing the forest for the trees. (At times that critique has even convinced Jews to reject their Pharisaic-Rabbinic heritage.) This Gemara and commentaries can be read as very much aware of the critique, and flouting it. As observant Jews, we “own” our attention to detail and hyper-legalism. In fact, we have no choice. We have been chosen by God, a God who applies infinite scrupulousness to every detail and demands from us the same (mutatis mutandis). The polestar of this focus on detail, in fact, is none other than the Exodus, that founding moment, where Israel was distinguished from Egypt. It precedes the law, and is in fact fundamental to what it means to be a Jew, God’s chosen nation! The exact color of our tekhelet and weight of our measures, the exact provenance of our fish guts and our firstborn, the details matter! That is what it means to be a Jew, that is what the Exodus means!

As the Book of Leviticus comes to a close, we can reflect back on the many distinctions that have been made throughout the book – Kosher versus non-Kosher, Israel and the nations, being Kadosh (=distinct) in one’s conduct just like God is Kadosh. The focus on these laws, and all of Jewish law, with its many distinctions and details, is no deviation from the “Big Picture” of the story of Israel’s Exodus and chosenness. In fact, that’s what it’s all about.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Shlomo Zuckier (SBM ’12) is co-director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University and a PhD student in Ancient Judaism at Yale University. Shlomo is a graduate of the Wexner, Tikvah, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships, serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus.

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Kedoshim: An Alternate Translation

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

א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ

כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

(1) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

(2) Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be kadosh, for I, the LORD your God, am kadosh.

This week’s parsha concerns itself with the concept of Kedusha, which has long been poorly defined and misunderstood by many. It is often translated as “holy,” including in the definition above from Sefaria, that I translated back to “kadosh.” To define kedusha requires further explanation. What is holiness? How do we identify it and how do we strive to achieve it? In proximity to p’rakim 18 (the end of the first of this double parsha) and 20 (the end of the second), we must ask also, in what way is kedusha similar to other aspirations of ours. In particular, purity (tahara) could be conflated with kedusha by juxtaposition (as Rashi does.) However, a close reading of the text creates room to suggest that these two concepts are distinct.

The first and most important clue that we have to build an understanding of the word “קדוש” is Hashem’s assertion that He is קדוש – thus, to be קדוש, we must emulate Him.

Our early commentators go in a different direction. As alluded above, Rashi says that to be kadosh, we must stay away from forbidden sexual relationships. He brings proof quotes from Vayikra 21 (i.e. not our parsha, but a later one) making the connection between sexual relationships and kedusha.

Another famous approach to this concept of Kedusha is Nachmanides’s assertion that “קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ” requires us to enjoy earthly pleasures in moderation. He specifically refers to food, wine and sexual relations, but uses the term “מעט” or “to minimize” when he refers to limiting one’s sexual relations and wine consumption: “ימעט במשגל” and “ויקדש עצמו מן היין במיעוטו”.

While Ramban’s approach is reasonable and logical, it does not fit well with the opening line: קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃”.

God, a non-corporeal being, may wish for us to moderate our pursuit of physical pleasures, but since he does not pursue physical pleasures, in doing so, we are not emulating him directly.

Another difficulty with these approaches is that the pasuk seems to function as an introduction to perek 19, but their comments don’t reflect the content of the perek. (Most of it is not about physical pleasures.) It is hard to suggest that 19:1-2 are a conclusion to perek 18 – perek 19 starts both a new parsha as well as a new “וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר” statement, which indicates the text is not necessarily connected to the text that preceded it. Arguably, these commentaries could still believe that 19:1-2 are standalone verses or verses that reflect the content of the second half of perek 20. The simplest meaning of the text, however, would seem to suggest that these psukim are in fact an introduction to the whole perek, a motley collection of laws that we must understand in order to pursue the kedusha imperative.

Many have noticed that this perek bears extensive resemblance to the Aseret Ha’Dibrot – the Decalogue – and sought meaning from that repetition. Rashi and many of his predecessors believed that a text could only be repeated for very specific reasons; generally, it was to add extra details (as Rashi spells out in Deuteronomy 15:12 among other places.) The Decalogue connection was noted in Vayikra Rabbah 24:5, and is discussed extensively in Nehama Leibowitz’s “New Studies in Vayikra” (pp. 271-276), and in articles by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag (http://tanach.org/vayikra/kdosh/kdoshs1.htm) and Rav Yair Kahn. (“Be Holy, for I Hashem am Holy” from the Yeshivat Har Etzion Virtual Beit Midrash.) However, it remains that we must ask how the rest of the perek teaches us what it means to be kadosh.

To sharpen our question, we can return to the second question: in what way does perek 19 differ from prakim 18 and 20’s long lists of forbidden sexual relationships and their punishments? Note that the word kadosh does not appear in perek 18 (which is why Rashi must go to another parsha to find the two concepts eventually connected.) Instead, variations of the word “טמא” – impure – appear 6 times in verses 24-30. The opposite of impure is of course טהור – pure. Perhaps, in placing perek 19 in the center of two p’rakim that elaborate on the long list of forbidden sexual relationships, the Torah is suggesting that Kedusha is not just the absence of sexual impurity, but also requires more from us. Rav Yair Kahn uses this sandwiching to suggest a hierarchy: טמא is the lowest level, followed by the neutral טהרה, but to achieve the highest level, we must contribute positively to the world by acting in a manner that embodies kedusha.

First and foremost, we must be kadosh by following the strictures of the Covenant at Sinai – namely, the Ten Commandments – which were introduced to us in Shmot 19:5-6 using the language of Kedusha:

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ

“You shall be for me a kingdom of Cohanim and a Kadosh nation.”

But wait! There’s more. It is not enough to keep the Decalogue – we must also keep the other laws mentioned in Parshat Kedoshim. So which commandments in Parshat Kedoshim are not explicitly connected to the Decalogue? Here is a potential, and perhaps only partial, list: (All are prohibitions unless otherwise noted.)

  1. Piggul – The commandment not to sacrifice an offering with the intention of eating it after the allowed time. (19:5-8)
  2. Peah and Leket – The commandments to leave a corner of your field and dropped sheaves and grapes for the poor. (19:9-10)
  3. The requirement to pay your day-laborer on time (19:13).
  4. Cursing the deaf and putting a stumbling block before the blind. (19:14)
  5. Acting justly in court cases (19:15)
  6. Tale-bearing (19:16)
  7. Standing idly by when another’s blood is being spilled (19:16).
  8. Vengeance (19:18)
  9. Forbidden mixtures (19:19)
  10. Orlah – not eating from a new fruit tree until its fifth year (19:23-25)
  11. Eating blood, necromancy (19:26, 19:31)
  12. Shaving the corners of one’s head and face (19:27)
  13. Cutting or tattooing your flesh (19:28)
  14. Appropriate treatment of the elderly and strangers (19:32-34)
  15. Using honest weights and measures (19:35-36)

I will leave it to the halachists to enumerate the boundaries of these ethical imperatives and instead focus on the whole, which is clearly more than the sum of its parts. What does it take to be kadosh? Everything! The way we groom our bodies, the clothing we wear and our sexual activities are mentioned briefly, overwhelmed by the number of commandments legislating the way we interact with others. Whether we are employers, jurists, farmers, merchants, we must heed these details in our daily interactions – taking care to treat others ethically in financial dealings, to avoid taking advantage and to refrain from gossip. This is emulating God, who deals with honesty and care with all of His creations, who embodies justice and truth.

So how to translate Kadosh? Perhaps “designated for a special purpose” just as the Kadosh space of the Tabernacle is designated for the service of the Lord. Shabbat kodesh is a time designated for the service of God; a man is mekadesh his wife so they are designated to be in a distinct, exclusive relationship much as Hashem was mekadesh our whole nation in an exclusive relationship with Him.

The second last pasuk  in our parsha states:

וִהְיִ֤יתֶם לִי֙ קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אֲנִ֣י ה’ וָאַבְדִּ֥ל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִן־הָֽעַמִּ֖ים לִהְי֥וֹת לִֽי׃

Consider translating it as follows:

You shall be kadosh (designated) to Me, for I the LORD am kadosh, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine. 

Of course we are not kadosh without a purpose. Our kedusha comes with an imperative: to act as He does, to create a world of people who engage in just and righteous conduct, and in doing so glorify His name.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM ’06) is a teacher of math and Tanach. She currently resides in Aspen Hill, MD and teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. You can read her blog posts at www.chumashandmath.blogspot.com.

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The House That Was?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tuvy Miller

Sanhedrin 71a cites Tannaitic positions in three contexts as declaring that a law in the Torah was never intended to be implemented.  The first is Rabbi Shimon regarding the Rebellious son:

וכי מפני שאכל זה תרטימר בשר ושתה חצי לוג יין האיטלקי אביו ואמו מוציאין אותו לסקלו? אלא לא היה ולא עתיד להיות, ולמה נכתב – דרוש וקבל שכר

Because he ate a tartimar of meat and drank half a log of Italian wine, his father and mother take him out for stoning?  Rather, he never was and never will be.  So why was it written?  Expound it and receive reward.

The other contexts are the ir ha-nidachat (idolotrous city) and bayit ha-menuga (“leprous” house).

R. Shimon’s position regarding the Rebellious Son has become a touchstone for discussions of morality and halakha.  Did moral concerns motivate him to legislate the law of the law out of existence? [1] Those who oppose this reading of R. Shimon [2] often point to the bayit ha-menugah.  There is nothing morally objectionable about it, and yet it is read out of existence! This proves that moral concerns are not necessary to achieve that result, and therefore perhaps the positions regarding ben sorer u-moreh and ir ha-nidachat were also not motivated by moral concerns.

Methodologically, this argument rests on solid ground.  But it does not seem compelling enough to categorically reject the possibility [3] that we should instead look for a moral issue in the case of the bayit ha-menuga  (BHM). [4] This perspective has not, to my knowledge, been adequately explored.

The Torah clearly limits the law of the BHM to the Land of Israel and to Jewish-owned homes. The former emerges quite clearly from the opening verses of the Torah’s treatment “when you enter the Land of Cana’an…” and is even clearer in the Tannaitic sources. [5] In that same verse, the word אחוזה is emphasized in relation to the land and ultimately to the house under discussion. This indicates an additional level of understanding-not only is this law limited to the Land of Israel, it is directly tied to Am Yisrael’s conquest and settling of the Land. [6]

The exclusion of non-Jewish homes derives from בית ארץ אחוזתכם, meaning that the homes must be Jewishly owned in order to become BHM. Based on Sifra and Vayikra Rabbah, Rashi adds a twist to this discussion that I believe will be crucial to our analysis:

ונתתי נגע צרעת – בשורה היא להם שהנגעים באים עליהם, לפי שהטמינו אמוריים מטמוניות של זהב בקירות בתיהם כל ארבעים שנה שהיו ישראל במדבר, ועל ידי הנגע נותץ הבית ומוצאן

This was an announcement to them that these afflictions would come upon them, because the Amorites concealed gold treasures in the walls of their houses during the Jews’ forty year sojourn in the desert and because of the affliction, they would tear down the house and find them (the treasures).

This explanation contends that BHM could only occur with a house that had previously been owned by non-Jews and presumably only as long as such houses existed in the land. [7] Ironically, even though such a house would generally not qualify as a BHM, once conquered it is the only structure that qualifies. [8]

Let us consider for a moment how the Tosefta’s assertion of לא היה ולא עתיד להיות would respond to this understanding of tsara’at. One might say that the two are incompatible because Rashi’s approach assumes as a matter of course that the Jews would actually find this gold, while the Tosefta believes BHM would never occur. Thus the Tosefta would likely not countenance Rashi’s conception of tsara’at ha-bayit.  However, the Tosefta could claim that since we do not see instances where the Jews actually uncovered this gold, Rashi’s position is still tenable as a theoretical Midrashic explanation. If the Tosefta is motivated by some moral concern in asserting לא היה ולא עתיד להיות, then it would now have to maintain that within Rashi’s understanding. It is this possibility that I would like to further examine.  

I contend that if faced with Rashi’s reading, the Tosefta would claim that the reason BHM “never was and never will be” is because it is inconceivable that, having ordered us to wipe out the Canaanite nations, the Torah would reward the Jews with their homes and possessions. In other words, while it may have been necessary, though not morally neutral, to attack these nations in order to take hold of the Land, the Jews had to remember the moral cost of what they had done and could not allow the newfound spoils to dim the memory of the battles. While the Jews would find booty upon their arrival, God did not want that to become the focus of the campaign, nor did He want it to derail the establishment of a just and moral society.

I would like to further elaborate upon this contention regarding an aversion to benefitting from the spoils of war to show that Tanakh’s perspective on this is complex. Throughout Tanakh, there are a number of instances where there are war narratives that discuss spoils, as well as some legal/philosophical sections. We will briefly examine several of them, though a more thorough analysis will be needed at a later date.

The first example in our exploration is the story of Avraham and the king of Sedom. After defeating the four kings, saving Lot and recapturing the spoils, Avraham and the king meet in what Humash calls “the valley of the king.” After Malki Tsedek’s enigmatic berakha, the king requests- “give me the people and take for yourself the spoils.” Avraham counters that he does not even want “a shoelace” lest the king say in the future, “I made Avraham wealthy.” On one level, this is a theological response, highlighted by the reference to God as koneh shamayim va-arets-Avraham wants everyone to know that his wealth comes from God, not a human king. This would be part of Avraham’s overall mission of keriah be-shem Hashem. However, there is an additional layer here quite relevant to our discussion. Were Avraham to accept the spoils, his wealth would forever be associated with this battle, giving the impression that this was perhaps the reason he went to battle in the first place. Avraham was justified in going to war but feared that if he collected the spoils, it would sully his mission of tsedek u-mishpat.

Later on in Tanakh, the Jews are faced with a similar situation when they prepare to re-enter the Land with Yehoshua. Unlike the Avraham episode which was a war of protection or self defense, the wars the Jews would fight were conquests. Already in Humash, God had made an allowance to take spoils from battles fought outside the Land, but when speaking about the conquest of Cana’an it is more ambiguous. By forbidding the Jews to take from the spoils of Yeriho, God sends a clear message- even if you will be allowed to take spoils in other battles, that is not the goal of this campaign and the booty cannot blind you to the complexity of what you are doing. That the example of Yericho is meant to impact future battles is clear because failing to heed God’s message leads to a breakdown of the campaign at the first battle of ‘Ai.

Perhaps one of the best sources to cite in opposition to our approach is the section in Bemidbar about  the spoils from the war with Midian. The Humash goes to great lengths to describe the booty and how it must be divided and made fit for Jewish use, presumably indicating approval of its acquisition. However, upon closer reading it seems that this picture is not quite accurate. The soldiers were never told anything about the spoils before they went out to battle and from Mosheh’s fiery reaction upon their return, he clearly did not approve of what they had done, at least with respect to the human captives. Furthermore, the requirement to purify the captured items and to divide them up in a specific manner, including giving a portion to God, places further limitations on the unrestricted consumption of these spoils. It may very well be that the reason for all of this is in order to distance the Jews from the reminders of the corrosive Midianite culture, but it is also possible that God wanted the soldiers to understand that their unchecked grabbing of spoils was problematic. Once the booty had been collected it would have been difficult to take it away, but the limitations taught the soldiers that when Divinely ordained war leads to rampant plundering, the moral justification begins to erode.

The text that deals directly with conquest and militates against our perspective can be found in Devarim, immediately after the section containing the first paragraph of Shema. Mosheh tells the people that they will enter the land and find houses filled with good and fields overflowing with plenty, none of which are of their own making. Here, conquering the land seems to go hand in hand with taking the spoils of war. In fact, the “houses filled with good” could be read as an allusion to the gold in the walls. [9] He warns that they should not forget God at this time, and one reason he gives is that the Jews may become over indulgent, neglect their spiritual obligations and begin to drift towards ‘avodah zarah. However, there is a deeper element present here that indicates a different perspective. When imploring the people not to forget God, Mosheh reminds them that this is God who “took you out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” This last part seems rather unnecessary, unless, of course, the Jews need to be reminded that the reason they were taken out of Egypt is to serve God through building a moral and just society in the Land of Israel. [10] This is further bolstered by the command to fear God which, in the Biblical context, refers primarily to behaving morally, as in the story of Avraham and Avimelekh, or in the retelling of the Amalek story later in Devarim. These two details indicate that while God realizes that spoils may be taken, that is not something that is morally neutral. It cannot become the basis for the society that we are creating, which must not be founded upon plunder, rather upon tsedek u-mishpat.

What we have seen in these examples is that in a number of cases, Tanakh’s attitude towards taking spoils is quite complex. While there is generally a recognition that Jewish armies may plunder, there is a clear message that it is not preferred and certainly is not the goal of the war. Furthermore, the story in Yehoshua and the text just examined teach us that such spoils may not serve as the basis for the society we are creating. The Jewish people are allowed to have a homeland, especially one to which they have ancestral rights. That acquiring this land will come through the loss of life is inevitable, maybe even justified, though still morally fraught. However, once the land has been acquired, every effort must be made to eschew the role of the victor and to build homes and fortunes that do not benefit from the spoils of the defeated. In this way, we will limit our triumphalism, always aware of the costs of our victory and ever vigilant to build a society that seeks to transcend that past of conquest in favor of a future filled with justice and righteousness. 

Notes:

[1] That he made the law halakhically inapplicable because of the immorality of killing a child for relatively benign actions. See Moshe Halbertal,  מהפכות פרשניות בהתהוותן (Magnes 1997) and R. Ethan Tucker’s critique https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/moral-revolution-or-complex-application. On ir ha-nidachat, see Ramah’s letter to the rabbis of Lunel about killing the children in the city (printed in the back of Yad Ramah on Sanhedrin).

[2] See R. Tucker pp. 18.  See also http://www.torahleadership.org/categories/kiteitzeiben.pdf and http://www.torahleadership.org/categories/kiteitzeibensorer_2.pdf.

[3] A 3rd option would be that there are two distinct parts of the list, but this seems unlikely and is stylistically awkward.

[4] For the purposes of this discussion, I will accept Halbertal’s more radical reading of R. Shimon, insofar as we are testing its validity by questioning one of the primary counter-arguments against it.

[5] Sifra, Mishna 12:1

[6] This understanding is proffered in Sifra 5:3

לאחוזה עד שיכבשו מנין אתה אומר כיבשו אבל לא חילקו חילקו למשפחות ולא חילקו לבית אבות ואין כל אחד ואחד מכיר את שלו, יכול יהו מטמאין בנגעים תלמוד לומר ובא אשר לו הבית עד שיהא כל אחד מכיר את שלו

Compare to Shemot 12:25; 13:5, 11 and Vayikra 23:10; 25:2 where conquest does not obviously appear.

[7] At some point, the houses left by the Amorites would crumble and the Jews would live in houses of their own construction.

[8] Furthermore, and perhaps most radically, it presumes that tsara’at on a house does not signify any wrongdoing on the part of the homeowner, but is instead a harbinger of berakha. This is contrary to most Rabbinic understandings of tsara’at which view it as a punishment for slander or haughtiness, among other things. It is important to explore the implications of this new position, but it goes beyond our analysis here.

[9] Though the Talmud (Hullin 17a) assumes that this refers to the un-kosher foods the Jews would find and would be permitted to consume. On this, see Ramban on our pasuk and Rambam, Hil. Melakhim 8:1.

[10] See the numerous verses later in Devarim about the need to care for the unfortunate among us, specifically linked to our experience in Egypt.

Tuvy Miller (SBM ‘13) is in his second year of semikha at RIETS and works at SAR High School as a Beit Midrash Fellow

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Ruling Desire and Desiring Rules

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parshas Tzav/Shabbos HaGadol — Precious Preparations

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Alex Zaloum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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An Introduction and Tribute to Nechama Leibowitz’s Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Skootsky

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

All of her parsha sheets are available online: http://www.nechama.org.il/pages/

This one can be found here: http://www.nechama.org.il/pages/737.html?1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My answers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Devotion and Completion

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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