RT on Acharey Mot-Kedoshim
One of the mitzvot discussed among the many that are presented in the parashiyot of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim is the mitzvah of orlah: “When you enter the land, and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden (orlah). Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I the Lord am your God”. We see that the mitzvah of orlah is presented as contingent upon, and connected to, the arrival to the Land. This explicit connection is made repeatedly throughout the Torah in its exposition of other mitzvot as well, like the Pesah offering: “Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering… You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite”.
So, when the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites… a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall observe in this month the following practice: Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the Lord. And this pattern continues with the laws of bikkurim (first fruits), the omer offering (first sheaf of barley), the prohibition on idolatry, and on and on. What becomes clear from this list is that placing mitzvot in the context of the arrival to the Land, is not restricted to mitzvot which actually relate to the work of the land. It is used for all types of mitzvot, interpersonal, ritual, and agricultural alike. But what is the meaning of this contextualization? What is the meaning of the phrase “when you enter the land”? In order to understand this, we have to understand the construction of “when you enter” (ki tavo’u). In the Hebrew, the preposition “ki” can mean a number of things, and we will see how these different interpretations employ different translations of “ki.” I would like to focus on three different possible explanations. The first understands this introduction of “when you enter” as serving the legal function of demarcating the physical and temporal boundaries of when the mitzvah in question applies—once you arrive in the Land. The second understands that entering the Land and remaining there is a reward for performing the mitzvot, while the third possibility understands ki tavo’u to relate to specific circumstances, circumstances of sovereignty. Ki tavo’u—Only when you enter the Land In the first possibility, the Land functions in its most literal sense—as a place. Thus, we understand the construction of “when you enter” as saying: When you enter the land thenyou will be expected to fulfill the mitzvot. As in: When you get to the Land and you plant a fruit tree, then you will be expected to fulfill the laws of orlah. And it will be when you enter the land—the verse made this ritual dependent on and effective after they entered the Land. This reading attempts to understand the preposition “ki” as “when,” as in “when you enter the land, you will be obligated in these mitzvot.” According to this reading, these mitzvot are applicable only in the Land once it is entered.
Ki tavo’u—Entering the Land is reward The midrash offers us an additional, and in some sense, opposite way of reading the relevance of the Land to these mitzvot: When He brings you, do the mitzvah that is mentioned here, in the merit of which you. We have before us an exegetical suggestion that is fascinating and bold. According to this explanation, the expression “When He brings you” is not actually a time-marker in the usual sense of “when,” but rather it is being understood as a result, specifically the reward that comes from performing the mitzvah. Here, Rabbi Akiva reads the Hebrew “ki” as “in order that,” such that the verse now reads, “in order that He will bring you.” This type of interpretation is found throughout the teachings of R. Akiva’s school whenever we encounter this type of construction as the preface to a commandment: “When He brings you,” “When He will have brought you,” and so on.
Thus, we see, that after the destruction of the Temple, an interpretive tradition develops that bestows value in the fulfillment of mitzvot in the diaspora, including those mitzvot that seem to be dependent on entering the Land. As such, this interpretation effectively offers an entirely new model for understanding the connection between these mitzvot and the Land. The Land is no longer the grounds or the conditions for these laws, rather the Land is their reward and the result. This interpretation flips the syntax of the verse. Instead of reading the verse as “when you enter the Land, then you will keep the mitzvot,” it reads it as “when you keep the mitzvot, then you will enter the Land.” The reading that R. Akiva’s school offers says that the mitzvot must be kept now, regardless of whether you are in the Land, in the desert, or anywhere else. This interpretation makes being in the Land functionally meaningless in terms of fulfilling the mitzvot themselves. The Land becomes less real and more ideal, no different from other types of rewards. It becomes a distant idea, an aspiration perhaps, conceptual, with less concrete import for daily livingUp to this point, we have seen two possibilities for understanding the different constructions of “entering the Land.” One understands the Land as a precondition or necessary condition for keeping the mitzvot, the other sees it as a result of that fulfillment. In the midrash, we find a disagreement which raises two distinct interpretations to this latter school of thought, regarding not only how to translate the word “ki” but also how to properly understand “the Land”: When the Torah speaks of “entering the Land” is it actually speaking about a physical land, a place, a locus of history, or is its meaning embedded in a specific political reality—when Israel is sitting in its land as a sovereign entity.
In this, it creates a new relationship between the Land and the mitzvot. This is a new voice, according to which entering the land is not a condition for the obligation in the mitzvot, and the claim that the land is a result or a reward for the mitzvot is not accepted as well. Rather a declaration that political conditions have an impact on keeping the mitzvot and on their status as binding, as the midrash explains “that Israel was not obligated” until the point of sovereignty. In other words, the independence of the land of Israel, which we celebrated last week, is also an opportunity to fulfill many Mitzvot.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Tazriah-Metzorah
Modern readers often find the laws concerning Israelites affected by tzara’at, a scaly skin disease (usually—though erroneously— rendered as leprosy), deeply disturbing. For thousands of years, people afflicted with diseases of the skin have suffered from stigma and social exclusion. So far from lightening the burden of stigma that the ailing are frequently made to bear, in this instance the Torah seems only to intensify it. And yet if we read both the text and the history of its interpretation closely, a somewhat more complex picture emerges. Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus deal with cases of transient and persistent tzara’at. One afflicted with the disease would be quarantined until it could be determined whether the illness was transient, in which case the sufferer could be declared pure and re-admitted into the community, or persistent, in which case he or she would be excluded from the community for as long as the ailment persisted, which frequently meant: for life. Why is so much attention paid to this particular ailment? How are we to understand the impulse to isolate the afflicted and remove them from the community? Leviticus’ passionate concern with creating an ordered haven within an often frighteningly chaotic world. Just as, in creating the world, God separated and ordered, so Israel is summoned to separate and order. By dividing sharply between permitted and forbidden foods, between permitted and forbidden sexual unions, and between life and death, Leviticus teaches, Israel engages in something godly. Focusing on maintaining a stark divide between life and death is likely the key to understanding the laws governing the metzora (one afflicted with tzara’at). When Miriam is afflicted with leprosy after speaking ill of her brother Moses, Aaron asks Moses to pray on her behalf, tellingly pleading that their sister “not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away”. For Leviticus, then, the metzora quite literally looks like death; the living dead conflate categories and blur boundaries—and are thus considered impure
Along the same lines, the Rabbis simply state that for Leviticus, tzara’at is “equivalent to death itself.” The Torah says of one afflicted with persistent tzara’at, “his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip”. All three of these practices are associated with mourning. Thus, for example, when Moses forbids Aaron and his sons from engaging in public rites of mourning, he instructs them: “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes”. And when God orders the prophet Ezekiel not to mourn his losses, God tells him not to cover his upper lip. So, Leviticus charges the metzora to conduct himself like a mourner. But why? Since, for Leviticus, the metzora occupies an intolerably gray space between life and death, the metzora “may be mourning his own ‘death. Given Leviticus’ concern to establish a stark boundary between life and death, all of this may be understandable—but it is nevertheless troubling: Should the Torah not mandate us to welcome and comfort the afflicted instead of isolating and expelling them? The Torah usually asks us to overcome our fears and visit the sick, so much so that for the “Overlaying the disease of tzara’at is the stigma of tzara’at. The visible marks upon the metzora do not simply mean: this one is ill. They announce: this one threatens the priestly universe… Shrink from him. Keep this dangerous one away, for tzara’at is identified with the very opposite of the priestly world: uncreation and death. The connection between tzara’at and death is subtly amplified by the biblical text. the sick (bikkur holim) is a form of “walking in God’s ways”.
So how can we make sense of the dramatic—and disturbing—exception in the case of the metzora? I cannot pretend to offer a solution to this problem. I do not have one—but I do find it striking that the Torah seems deeply concerned to prevent permanent stigma being attached to one who has been afflicted by tzara’at. The Sages who do offer an explanation don’t feel they can override a biblical mandate to isolate the metzora, but they can fundamentally transform the tenor of that isolation. The metzora is cast out but decidedly not forgotten. So, too in our lives. Connection is paramount in our relationships. Even when troubling, it must be maintained.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Shemini
This week’s parashah marks the consecration of the tabernacle, the mishkan, and the inauguration of its service. But this joyous occasion is clouded by the smoke of the strange and unwelcome fire that was brought by Aharon’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu: Aharon’s sons, who each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered a foreign fire before God, which He had not commanded them. And fire emerged from the presence of God and consumed them, and they died before God. Then Moshe said to Aharon, “This is what God meant when He said, ‘Through those who are near Me, I will show myself holy and before all the people, I will be honored.’” And Aharon was silent. Although Aharon himself is silent in the face of the tragic loss of his children, Rabbinic tradition is replete with attempts to uncover why Nadav and Avihu had to die, and what this tragedy can teach us about what it means to approach and engage with the holy. Nadav and Avihu’s over eagerness and overzealousness in approaching God’s presence is not approved of by God and is met by the most severe of punishments. Nadav and Avihu’s passing teaches us that there are negative consequences to being focused solely on one’s own spiritual needs and desires. Instead, the truly righteous person both tempers their religious passion and recognizes and supports the spiritual needs of others. These are the names of the sons of Aharon: Nadav the firstborn, and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar… Nadav and Avihu died before God when they offered foreign fire before God in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children. Elazar and Itamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aharon.
Highlighting the fact that Nadav and Avihu did not have any children is perfectly relevant in context. However, the midrash extracts this detail and reads it as a unique and somewhat surprising diagnosis of why it is that Nadav and Avihu met an early and terrible death: The salvation that children provide their parents is greater than the salvation that parents provide for their children. For parents only save their children from the suffering of this world. But on the day of Judgment parents cannot save their children from the judgment of hell, as it says, “there is none who can save from My hand”. Avraham cannot save Yishmael, and Yitzhak cannot save Esav. But the children can save their parents from the judgment of hell, whether they are adults or young children. The adult children can save through their good deeds, and the young children can save [through the atonement that is affected] when they die in their youth. And if you say, the father is already righteous; let him bring merit to himself, and he will not need his child, behold it says, Nadav and Avihu died, in their bringing of a foreign fire to God…and they had no children. For if they had had righteous children, those children would have provided atonement for them, and they, Nadav and Avihu, would not have been burned. The midrash seems to state that the reason why Nadav and Avihu lost their lives due to the fire that they brought is that they did not have children. This claim is difficult to understand. Are we to believe that one can do whatever he or she wants as long as there are righteous children to grant atonement?
The power of this midrash’s teaching comes through its reversal of the way that we tend to think and speak about how the actions of the members of a family usually affect one another. Theologically and liturgically, Jewish tradition speaks of the concept of zekhut avot, ancestral merit, which accrues to the benefit of the descendants of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. This midrash argues to the contrary, that merit actually works in the opposite direction—flowing from children back to their parents. And the midrash does not make this unusual claim in order to provide a satisfying explanation for the incredible tragedy of the loss of Nadav and Avihu, but rather to enable us to derive a significant lesson from it. The midrash is challenging our assumptions about ancestral merit in order to encourage a certain type of behavior. If I, as a parent, believe that my merit will save me or my children, I am incentivized to become more righteous and virtuous myself, to stockpile righteous deeds, the reward for which can be exchanged for salvation. When the midrash argues that you cannot save yourself or anyone else through your own merit, it encourages you to focus less on your own religious and spiritual growth and more on enabling others—in this case your children—to become more righteous. It is better to be a good parent whose children are good, than to be a virtuous person who has done many good deeds him or herself but has not raised up anyone else. Nadav and Avihu are paradigmatic of the attitude that this midrash is challenging. Nadav and Avihu were overzealous and therefore reckless; they were obsessed with trying to serve God and become close to God. They were so infatuated with the fiery glory of the Divine that they got too close and they were burnt. They tried to offer God more than God wanted from them. Nadav and Avihu did not die despite of their righteousness, but because of it.
A simplistic reading of the midrash states that Nadav and Avihu’s childlessness is the reason that they were not saved from the fire. A deeper reading of the midrash suggests that their childlessness was a symbolic indication of the type of people that they were—focused on spiritual matters to the exclusion of all else. To be a good parent means that you will have to skip some prayers and study less Torah in order to take care of your children. You have less time available to volunteer for worthy causes, less disposable income to give to the needy. Raising your children with sufficient devotion might mean that you are not always able to give God your fullest attention. To be a good parent is to care about yourself but to care about someone else even more, to be willing and able to focus on the growth and the flourishing and the success of someone who is not you. This perspective teaches that when you are looking for the greatest way to develop religiously, you should look at how you can facilitate the religious growth of someone else. It asks you to train yourself to be willing to sacrifice your own spiritual well-being: your own ability to do mitzvot, your own time to learn Torah, your own relationship with God, so that someone else will have the opportunity to do that mitzvah, someone else will have raising your children with sufficient devotion might mean that you are not always able to give God your fullest attention. To be a good parent is to care about yourself but to care about someone else even more, to be willing and able to focus on the growth and the flourishing and the success of someone who is not you. This perspective teaches that when you are looking for the greatest way to develop religiously, you should look at how you can facilitate the religious growth of someone else. It asks you to train yourself to be willing to sacrifice your own spiritual well-being: your own ability to do mitzvot, your own time to learn Torah, your own relationship with God, so that someone else will have the opportunity to do that mitzvah, someone else will have the opportunity to learn that Torah, someone else will advance in their closeness to God.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Va Yakhel – Pekudei
Parashat Pekudei opens with a list of exact amounts of material used for the Mishkan, (the Tabernacle in the desert) perhaps more appropriate for a spreadsheet than a narrative. While at first it seems that this list is exhaustive, in fact, the only items for which a precise amount is recorded are the precious metals: gold, silver, and copper. Although this gold, silver, and copper were used as 1 construction materials in the mishkan, generally precious metals are used on a smaller scale for adornments and jewelry, and, of course, coins and currency. The treatment of these metals can stand in for how we relate to money and its collection. The strict accounting of the money that was used to build the mishkan highlights an important lesson in what it means to be transparent and accountable and to always hold ourselves to the highest standard. Perhaps the most important role that money plays in an ethically based society is that it is used for charitable contributions and donations. Although the origins of the Jewish laws of tzedakah are primarily agricultural, leaving the edge of one’s field for the poor, a special tithe for the needy every third year, the laws of charitable giving developed throughout the Talmudic period to include a complex network of charitable institutions like soup kitchens, which needed honest and competent administrators to run them. These trustees are called “gabba’im” and the 14th century Law Code of R. Ya’akov ben Asher, provides the details for how these trustees were to treat the money they collected: Although the fabrics, skins, and stones were also expensive and critical to the construction of the tent and the clothing of the kohanim who served within its curtained walls, the text did not deem it necessary to detail their exact amount.
Tzedakah collectors, gabba’im, may not separate from one another to collect independently, unless they can be seen by one another. If [a collector] finds money in the market or if someone pays back a personal debt in the market, he should not put [the money] in his pocket since this will look suspicious. Instead, he should put them in the tzedakah pouch and then take [the money that is his] out of it when he gets home. They do not count the coins of tzedakah two by two, so that they will not be suspected of taking one of every count and instead they count them one by one. If they did not have any poor people to distribute to and they need to change the coins or sell them, they cannot sell them to themselves or change them for themselves, but they may do so for others. Similarly, if they need to sell [perishable food] that they collected from the food collection they should sell it to others out of concern for suspicion. We do not closely supervise trustworthy collectors, but nevertheless they should provide an accounting so that they will be clean before God and Israel. The original source for the practice of collecting tzedakah with the oversight of a team of two or three collectors, not pocketing money found in the market, and the prohibition on counting coins in pairs, comes from the Talmud.
The strictures around making change with the tzedakah coins and the gabba’im buying back the money or food themselves comes from a different Talmudic teaching. However, the notion of giving a strict accounting of how much they have collected, despite being honest and scrupulous people is not found in the earlier sources.
According to one Commentator, when Moshe presented an exact tally of all the precious metal and money in the mishkan, he was setting a positive example to all tzedakah collectors to come. No one was more worthy of being given autonomy, no one is as trustworthy and trusted by God than Moshe, but nevertheless Moshe was scrupulous. Moshe made sure that not an ounce of copper or gold came into the treasury without being noted and marked down correctly so that an exact accounting could be presented to the people and he would be above suspicion. This insight about Moshe is true of all tzedakah professionals or other people in similar positions of holy responsibility. The gabba’im are people who have chosen to dedicate their time and efforts to feeding and clothing the poor. The gabba’im are people who have gained the trust of the community and have been entrusted with the community’s hard-earned money. These gabba’im have been selected and appointed. And though they may be if not on Moshe’s level, then close to it, they must operate completely above board. They can never rest on their laurels and think of themselves as above suspicion. The lesson to be drawn from this care is not only about treating the community and their money with respect, but also fundamentally about what it means to develop and maintain a good reputation and it shows us that having a good reputation can be dangerous. Therefore, we need to be careful not to exploit our good name.
We can then see that tzedakah is not merely about donations for the poor. The administration of these monies must be of the highest ethical level.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Ki Tissa
This week’s is a parashah of both rupture and reconciliation. The creation of and worship of the golden calf was an unpardonable sin, and those who participated in it full-heartedly did not merit God’s forgiveness. Fortunately, God did not sever His relationship with the Jewish people entirely. Through the power of Moshe’s person and Moshe’s prayer, God allowed for the people to continue their journey into the promised land. However, according to Rabbinic tradition, despite Moshe’s prominent role, the paradigm for prayer that we learn from in this week’s parashah is not Moshe, but rather God Himself. According to the Talmud, God models prayer for us and even prays Himself.
But what does it mean to say that God prays? Who does He pray to and for what does He pray? If prayer is simply asking a powerful God for what we want because we are powerless to get it on our own, it makes no sense for God to pray. When we see prayer as something that is relevant for God to do, it can shift and deepen our understanding of what we are or should be doing in our own prayers. We can learn a lot about what prayer could mean for us, when we see it from God’s vantage point. After this sin and its aftermath, Moshe atones for the people who remained. After this atonement, God invites Moshe to make a second set of tablets to replace the ones that Moshe had broken upon witnessing the celebration around the Golden Calf.
There, God and Moshe have an encounter that is difficult to characterize, where we learn about what will eventually be called the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy: The “13 attributes of Mercy” continue in the next two verses. He chiseled two stone tablets like the first. Moshe got up early in the morning, ascended Mt. Sinai like God commanded, taking in his hand the two stone tablets. God descended in a cloud, and he stood with him, and he called in the name of God. God passed before his face and he called, “HaShem HaShem”, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and great of kindness and truth… This passage is striking in its representation of what it means to reconcile, to compromise and to meet in the middle. The image of God descending and Moshe ascending to meet in the middle at the top of the mountain reflects the need to move out of one’s place of self-righteous isolation, to a place of communication and togetherness. However, the ambiguous use of pronoun “he” (or “He”) in these verses makes it unclear what transpires between God and Moshe after they meet. Who stood with whom? Who called out in the name of God? Did Moshe say, “merciful and gracious God” in spontaneous reaction to seeing God and experiencing the overwhelming power of forgiveness? Or is the story best read through the eyes of the Rabbis, that as God passed before Moshe, He not only 4 showed Himself, but also spoke about Himself, teaching Moshe about Who He is and what Moshe can expect from Him? According to R. Yohanan, God is clearly speaking about Godself, communicating to Moshe and to the people who would learn from him, how to pray. God passed before his face and called. R. Yohanan said:” Were this verse not written, it would be impossible to say. It teaches that God wrapped Himself [in a tallit] like a prayer leader and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to [Moshe]: Every time the people of Israel sin, they should enact this order and I will forgive them. I am He from before a person sins, and I am He after the person sins and repents. I will call in the name of God before you”. This is a standard phrase to employ before a statement that is particularly and surprisingly anthropomorphic. It both legitimizes the interpretation by arguing that it is based in the text and highlights its possibly problematic theology in that one could not say such a thing about God without Biblical support and permission.
Thus, we see how the Rabbis, in their interpretation of the Torah, emphasize the importance of prayer in word, fully realizing that the model of animal sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem could not exist in for long, given the historical and political situations of the Jewish people in antiquity.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Parashat Tetzaveh is notable not only for what it contains but also for what it lacks. From the point of Moshe’s birth in the second chapter of Exodus throughout the entire journey in the wilderness, Moshe’s name appears in every single Torah portion…except for this week’s Parasha, Tetzaveh. Where did Moshe go? Why is his name absent from this section of the Torah? According to a medieval commentator, Moshe’s name is absent from this parashah because it deals exclusively with laws related to the priesthood, and these laws are not relevant to him: Moshe’s absence is also noted by another commentator, whose commentary similarly focuses on the minutiae of the text and their hidden significance, such as the significance of the number of words in each parashah. It is no surprise that he focuses on this oddity. He provides a different explanation for why Moshe’s name is not mentioned in this entire portion. There is no other portion in the entire Torah in which Moshe’s name is not mentioned. The reason for this is because [Moshe] said, “Erase me from Your book which You have written and the curse of a sage, even if it was uttered on a condition [that was not fulfilled] still comes to pass”. And it was fulfilled in this way.
Why wasn’t Moshe named in these sections? It can be said that since [Moshe] should have received the priesthood, but it was taken from him since he said [at the burning bush], send who You will, and the priesthood was given to Aaron. That is why [Moshe’s] name is not mentioned regarding anything related to the priests. The Vilna Gaon of Lithuania, on the other hand, attributes the absence of Moshe’s name here not to the content of the parashah, but rather to the timing of its reading. He notices that Parashat Tetzaveh is almost always read adjacent to the date of 7 Adar, the anniversary of Moshe’s death, his yahrzeit. Moshe’s absence from this parashah is an indication that there will come a 3 time when Moshe himself will be absent from the lives of the Jewish people. The absence of Moshe’s name in the parashah subtly hints to, and perhaps even prepares the reader for, the reality of Moshe’s departure. Moshe’s absence here reminds the reader of how central Moshe is to the Torah’s narratives and its laws. So much of the Torah is a record of how Moshe struggled with us, loved us, and suffered for us. And like the Torah itself, Moshe’s character rewards re-reading. In keeping with the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation, perhaps Moshe’s absence in this parashah is a call to us, his students, to bring up his name. Perhaps we are being invited to note Moshe’s death and to eulogize him when we read this parashah, which appears so close to the anniversary of his death He explained that Moshe vanished from this parashah because he was banished from the priesthood.
Perhaps this change in Moshe’s role can give us some insight into who Moshe is. His no-longer-priestly status, which some commentators interpreted as a punishment, might also be seen in a positive light when we look at the way Moshe handles this demotion. Less significant than the fact that the role of priest was taken from Moshe is the Aaron is not only what makes him great, it is also what makes Moshe great: Moshe could not shoulder the burden of leadership alone and he doesn’t insist on doing so. Moshe is absent from the parashah because Moshe’s willingness to be absent is what makes him worth remembering. When we look more closely at the scene at the burning bush, Moshe’s grace is striking. God first speaks to Moshe and appoints him redeemer of the Jewish people. When Moshe is hesitant about going and resists this task, God tells Moshe that he will not be going to Egypt alone, that Aaron will be speaking on his behalf. Moshe is no longer the sole redeemer and will have to share the glory with his brother. When God delivers this decision, God is angry, and His tone borders on sarcasm, God was furious with Moshe, and He said, “Isn’t Aaron, the Levi, your brother? Don’t I know that he can surely speak? And now, he is coming out to greet you, and his heart will be glad upon seeing you.” Yet Moshe does not respond to God’s anger with defensiveness. In fact, he doesn’t respond at all. Aaron’s help is something that Moshe is grateful to receive. His response to God’s telling him that he will be sharing the spotlight and sharing the credit is to go straight home and pack, to pick up his family and set off on his mission. It is the promise of Aaron’s presence that gives Moshe the confidence to become a leader. Therefore, a parashah about Aaron’s priestly garments, a parashah in which Aaron is the focus, is also a parashah about Moshe’s leadership and true humility. Moshe doesn’t feel the need to be the hero, and he is happy to receive guidance and support from his brother. He is happy to step Remembering Moshe aside and allow Aaron to take center stage, a willingness reflected by Moshe’s anonymity and almost total invisibility in this week’s parashah.
After the redemption from Egypt is complete, Moshe moves into the next stage of his leadership, as the teacher and lawgiver to the newly independent Jewish people. Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, sees that Moshe is trying to judge the people on his own. Moshe has taken on too much in trying to resolve all disputes by himself and to dispense God’s guidance to each petitioner individually. Yitro points out that neither Moshe nor the people will survive if Moshe is the sole adjudicator; he needs help!
Thus, we see the very trait that makes Moshe great – his total humility. If all of us could inculcate that personality trait as fully as Moshe, the World would be a lot better place to live.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Terumah
If Parashat Terumah were a room, it would dazzle the eyes. It would be a room full of treasures made of copper and silver and gold, of carefully created curtains and wooden structures built to impress. If I walked into this room the grandeur and obscurity of the objects would likely overwhelm me. But out of the corner of my eye, I would spot something familiar. Standing tall, in glittering gold, I would recognize it—the menorah. Surrounded by unfamiliar objects, the menorah feels like home base. Finally, something familiar. Finally, an object I can picture. Of all the images from the Mishkan, the menorah has traveled through time and found a place in our modern shuls and homes—our modern mishkans. Since long before the Star of David, the menorah has been a central symbol for our Judaism. We can understand the menorah.
Moses, however, felt differently. The Commentator Rashi tells us that for Moses, the menorah was an especially tricky assignment. In a parashah full of complicated and esoteric details, what feels most familiar to us seems to have been the most confusing object for Moses. Using two different verses, Rashi brings two alternative versions of the story of Moses’s struggle to understand the menorah: “And you shall make a menorah of pure gold. The menorah shall be made of hammered work; its base and its stem, its goblets, its knobs, and its flowers shall [all] be [one piece] with it”. Rashi explores the phrase “The menorah shall be made – by itself. Since Moses found difficulty with figuring out how to form the menorah, the Holy blessed One, said to him, “Cast the talent [of gold] into the fire, and it will be made by itself.” Therefore, it is not written “you shall make” [but rather “shall be made”]. In this midrash, Moses has so much trouble with the menorah that God takes over. Moses need only place the requisite amount of gold into the flame and the completed menorah will emerge. The fire will make the menorah. The second midrash presents a different, but equally fiery story. “Now see and make according to their pattern, which you are shown on the mountain”. What is God referring to here? What was Moses shown on the mountain? This informs us that Moses had difficulties with the making of the menorah, until the Holy Blessed One showed him a [model] menorah of fire. In this version, rather than using fire to make the menorah for Moses, God uses fire to create a model, a template for Moses to follow.
This is not the first time God has communicated with Moses through fire. In fact, God has a habit of taking otherwise mundane objects and making them holy with the addition of fire. What was just a bush becomes the famous burning bush from which God calls out to Moses. What was just a mountain becomes the fiery mountaintop where God speaks to Moses and the people. And here, what may have been just a lamp becomes a fiery menorah. In these stories the fire brings an element of excitement, inducing awe and wonder. When there is fire, we are acutely aware of God’s holiness and grandeur. We pay attention. These are the stories that start our blood pumping harder and make us sit up straighter in our chairs. We associate the fire with the ecstatic experience of encountering God. In the Mishkan, God’s words will find their way into the ark, but God’s fire is here in the menorah. There is also a midrash where God writes the Torah for Moses with letters of black fire on white fire. To people who love studying Torah, this midrash makes perfect sense—the 5 excitement of Torah, the encounter with the divine, is found in the letters and words. But Parashat Terumah is not about words, it is about symbols. By teaching Moses about the menorah through fire, God infuses the symbol with excitement and meaning. Symbols hold a different kind of power. Rashi, the ultimate lover of study, delves headfirst into this sea of images and symbols. The usually terse commentator writes generously and in detail about the images found in this parashah, and brings not one, but two stories to infuse the menorah with the fire of God entire written and oral Torah—there were only three things that God showed with pictures, and among them: the menorah.
The Menorah, then, is the true symbol of the Jewish People. Even more than the Star of David, the Menorah, which is on the Coat of Arms for the state of Israel, ties us to our past, and carries us with it into our future.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Mishpatim
Biblical laws make specific, concrete demands upon us. But discerning the meaning of these laws for our own time can sometimes be extremely difficult: How does a law rooted in the ancient world continue to speak, inspire, challenge, and provoke even in our own radically different one? Parashat Mishpatim offers a fascinating case study. The Torah teaches: “You shall not oppress any widow (almanah) or orphan”. According to some scholars, an almanah in the Torah is not equivalent to a widow in our modern context. By widow we mean a woman whose husband has died, but in the ancient world, the primary issue is not whether a woman’s husband has died but whether there are any male relatives to be responsible for her after his passing. “Ordinarily,” Bible scholar Paula Hiebert notes, “the widow’s maintenance would have been the responsibility of either her sons or her father-in-law. When these male persons were nonexistent, then the widow… became an almanah.” The Torah worries that the almanah has no one to provide for her, and—worse— that she has no one to protect her from those who would prey on the defenseless.
How does a law rooted in the ancient world continue to speak, inspire, challenge, and provoke even in our own radically different one? Since “they fear no reprisals from outraged family members.” Both the almanah and the orphan “have lost their male advocate and protector and so are exposed to endless social threat.” The Torah’s primary concern seems to be with the socio-economic vulnerability of the widow and the orphan, but, subtly picking up on the Torah’s phrasing—“You shall not oppress any (kol) widow or orphan”—Maimonides focuses our attention on their psychological vulnerability as well: “A person must be extremely careful in interacting with orphans and widows because their spirits are very low and their feelings are depressed. This applies even if they are wealthy—even if they are the widow and the orphan of a king.” Maimonides weaves together the Torah’s demand for probity in the economic sphere and its concern with emotional sensitivity in the relational one: “How should one interact with them? One should speak to them only gently and treat them only with respect. One should cause pain neither to their body with overwork nor to their heart with words, and one should show more consideration for their financial interests than for one’s own.” One who oppresses a widow or an orphan or causes them financial loss—let alone one who beats or curses them —violates the Torah’s prohibition, Maimonides emphasizes, but so also does one who vexes or angers them or hurts their feelings.
Another Commentator suggests that the fact that not every widow is an almanah “may explain why some women in Scripture who are widows are never called almanot—Naomi, Orpah, Ruth, Abigail, Bathsheba. Even without their spouses, they have some means of support.” God warns of dire consequences if people mistreat the widow and the orphan: “If you do oppress them, I will hear their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans”. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra notes that the text shifts between speaking to the Israelites in the singular and addressing them in the plural—“do not oppress” is in the plural; “if you do oppress” is in the singular; and “I will put you to the sword” is again in the plural—and explains that the Torah expands the circle of responsibility to include not only those who oppress the widows and the orphans, but also “those who see the oppression and remain silent… Therefore, it is written, “If you (singular) do oppress them… I will kill you (plural)”. In a society where some are oppressed, all are implicated. There are no innocent bystanders.
Such is our responsibility of one to the other in Society – a Jewish value that transcends time. May we all take such a responsibility seriously in all our days.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Yitro
Our parashah describes the climactic moment of the direct encounter between humanity and God, or more specifically, the people of Israel and their God: “Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain” God’s speech is directed towards the entire people, in a way that is unmediated. Instead of relaying His speech through the chain of Moshe who speaks to the elders who then speak to the people, or through Aaron as a mouthpiece, God speaks directly. This time God turns to the people and the direct encounter takes place after the people are asked to prepare, body and soul, for this interaction—they sanctify themselves, wash their clothes, and prepare to respond to the divine invitation. It seems that through this direct speech act, God takes a step toward Israel—the tribe, group, and people that He has chosen. Until now the connection between God and the people was circuitous, going through various intermediaries—plagues, commandments, Moshe himself. This time it is different. This time they truly meet.
With this context in mind, reading Israel’s reaction to God’s invitation for a closer, more direct connection is heartbreaking. Israel reacts with what appears to be a rejection, a request for more distance, for indirectness, for mediation. The Israelites turn to Moshe and they say, “‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die”. In my imagination I can see the moment where God is longing, trying, wanting to get close to the Israelites by “God coming down, in the sight of all the people”, and it is at that moment that the Israelites respond to the possibility of direct communication in the negative. There is a stream of exegesis that beckons us to understand that the response of the people is not as it seems. It does not express a desire for distance, rather it is a demand that reflects a desire to be more directly involved in the covenant. Meaning, Israel is not asking to be farther from God, but wants to have a say in the way that God and humans communicate. They are trying to take part in defining the relationship that is created by the receipt of the ten commandments. What they are saying is that without their involvement, the covenant itself will be lacking.
A possible explanation is found in an exegetical dispute regarding what took place on Mount Sinai. The Sages discuss what Israel heard directly from God at Sinai, and possibly disagree about the chronological placement of this critical moment when Israel requests of Moshe, “You speak to us and we will hear commandments from the mouth of God”. The Rabbis are debating about what it is that Israel did hear directly from God’s mouth. In other words, they are discussing what was heard directly at Sinai, how much of God’s speech was unmediated. The midrash records two suggestions. According to the Rabbis, every single one of the commandments was spoken from God’s own mouth. However, according to R. Yehoshua ben Levi only the first two were spoken by God. Immediately after the second commandment, the people interrupted God and asked Him to stop speaking with them in such a direct way.
All of this Midrashic interpretation confirms what we already know – our desire to be in the presence of God, and to follow His ways. In doing so, we emulate God through our own actions, and sanctify the world around us.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Beshallach
To all outward appearances, Parashat BeShallach is the archetype of the revelation of God to humanity through awe-inspiring miracles. The natural processes are so completely overturned that there is no room for doubt as to who is the Master of the Universe. At the same time, the parashah’s counter-narrative teaches us that divine miracle-making does not overcome the flawed character of human nature. The Torah Portion starts with perhaps the most important miracle in the Bible—certainly the most celebrated—the splitting of the Reed Sea. This wondrous event enabled the Israelites to successfully complete their escape from Egypt. The stunning miracle obliterated Pharaoh’s army and the residual Egyptian capacity to re-enslave the Hebrews. If the Exodus or liberation is the core experience of Jewish history and religion, then the splitting of the sea is its climactic moment, so overwhelming that the Israelites’ anxieties and hesitations fall away.
As our parashah shows, even visible miracles have only a fleeting, surface effect. Why is this so? Because miracles are external experiences that do not change the underlying psychology of the people who witness them. When the miracle is unbelievably powerful—such as at the Reed Sea—people are thunderstruck. They really do believe in God and Moses—momentarily. But three days later, the dazzle has faded. Then the slaves, unaccustomed to the hard work and responsibility taking of the life of freedom, grow tired. They are frightened that the dependable provisions are not there. Yielding to a miracle is like giving in to intimidation. Since the person did not really want to do it, the preferred alternative behavior reasserts itself as soon as one can get away with it. When the fear (or the thrill) instilled by a miracle fades, the ingrained tendencies or the habitual behavior patterns take over. The individuals go on their way, not the “coerced” divine way. The deepest message in our parashah is in its opening declaration that Moses did not take the short route to Israel (i.e., the King’s highway via the Land of the Philistines) because the Israelite slaves were not up to the challenges of fighting a war to win their freedom.
At that point, there were two choices before God. One, to remove human free will and turn the Israelites and ultimately all human beings into robots, perfectly fulfilling God’s directions and not deterred by real-life considerations. Maimonides wrote that out of respect for human beings, God chooses the second option, to accept people as they are. Rather than changing human nature miraculously, the Torah accepts the realities of human nature and human limitations. Israelites are asked to raise the level of their moral performance above the society and culture around them, while moving toward an ultimately higher divine standard. 8 The Bible’s ultimate process is a movement away from visible miracles and public (heavenly) revelation toward a process of education and persuasion to get people to act properly. Increasingly, the historical outcomes are dependent on human behavior and the equilibrium of forces rather than on divine intervention.
By the time we reach the Talmud, the Rabbis tell us that the age of prophecy (direct messages from Heaven) and of visible miracles is over. Such miracles are too “coercive.” God wants humans to use their reason and emotions and choose to do the right thing out of free will and choice. 10 This change in tactics explains the fate of idolatry among Jews. Idolatry persisted in the biblical age despite the Torah’s war on it. Even remarkable miracles, such as Elijah’s triumph over the prophets of Baal, won only temporary victories. In the Rabbinic period when there were no such dramatic divine interventions, the Rabbis overcame idolatry completely by universally educating the people with the learning of Torah.
This is the reason why learning is paramount among us; we cannot depend on miracles – we must learn about ourselves and who we are and meet God halfway.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
RT on Bo
Having just experienced the Inauguration of President Biden, it got me thinking about ceremonies, and how we remember, especially since this week’s Torah Portion is the major story on which we base our Passover Seder.
We remember things in all sorts of ways. Most commonly, we commemorate them. We engage in rituals and ceremonies that will call ideas and experiences to mind. We set aside days that are focused on various themes and historical occurrences. Sitting in our own space and time in the present, we conjure up memories of the past. Commemoration can be flexible and adaptive. George Washington’s birthday can be observed on Monday closest to February 22nd if the day falls on an inconvenient day of the week. Creative ceremonies can be created to connect the treasured memory more effectively to contemporary sensibilities. Fireworks on the 4th of July help create a celebratory and magical atmosphere that can inspire gratitude for America’s history and loyalty to its ideals. Sometimes, we remember through reenactment. If commemoration is about transporting a memory from the past into the present, reenactments aim to transport people living in the present back into the past. When the Declaration of Independence is read in period dress from the steps of the National Archives on July 4th, when men suit up in colonial and crown costume in Lexington, MA on Patriots’ Day, the goal is reenactment. Timing, dress and location are all critical for achieving this effect. Reenactments are more rigid, more demanding of the participants. They aim to do something unconventional and require both more preparation and more involvement.
The Pesah Seder is a perfect example of a Jewish event that mixes elements of commemoration and reenactment. We don’t travel back to Egypt each year in order to reenact the exact experience of the Exodus, nor is there a requirement to mimic the unified Temple ritual by gathering all in one place to observe the commandments associated with this special evening. As such, this homebased ritual, observed home by home across the world has strong commemorative elements. But a thread of reenactment runs strongly through the Seder rituals as well and, in some contexts, comes to dominate and define them.
It’s early yet, but Passover awaits!
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Shemot
Everyone thinks they know the story of the Exodus: No longer able to bear their oppression and enslavement, the Israelites cry out to God, who remembers the covenant and redeems them. The story of the slaves being freed is the foundational story of the Jewish people: Twice a day Jewish liturgy recounts the experience of slavery and liberation, and once a year, at Passover, Jews ritually re-enact the journey from bondage to freedom. And yet in some Jewish sources, the story takes on a seemingly very different hue. A narrative of subjugation and deliverance becomes, of all things, a tale of gratitude and ingratitude.
The book of Exodus begins on an ominous note: The text tells us that “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph”. This is a surprising turn of events—according to the book of Genesis, after all, Joseph was enormously powerful, second in power only to Pharaoh himself. He effectively controls the Egyptian economy and amasses tremendous wealth for Pharaoh. How is it possible that the new Pharaoh does not even know him? But Joseph is not the only biblical character whom Pharaoh does not know. A few chapters later, when Moses first conveys God’s demand to let Israel go, Pharaoh responds contemptuously: “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go”. Commenting on Pharaoh’s purported ignorance of Joseph, a midrash asks, “But how can this be, for to this very day, the Egyptians know the kindness Joseph did for them?!” Rather, the Midrash answers, “Pharaoh knew Joseph but did not pay him adequate attention and was ungrateful to him. And in the end, he was ungrateful to God as well, as it says, ‘I do not know the Lord.’ From this we learn,” the Midrash adds, “that ingratitude is closely related to rejection of God”. When the Torah tells us that Pharaoh did not “know” Joseph, in other words, it means to suggest not that Pharaoh was unacquainted with Joseph, but rather that he did not acknowledge Joseph and the great debt that Egypt as a whole, and Pharaoh in particular, owed him. Pharaoh is ungrateful both to Joseph and to God. The midrash insists that these two types of ingratitude are of a piece, and even that one leads almost inevitably to the other; gratitude and ingratitude are ways of being in the world— the former has the potential to pervade and enrich every corner of our lives, and the latter has the power to metastasize and poison every aspect of our being. Pharaoh’s ingratitude permeates his entire world, and it drives his life in endlessly destructive ways. What does it mean to be ungrateful? At bottom, ingratitude reflects an inability—or perhaps an unwillingness—to acknowledge our dependence on, and our indebtedness to, anything.
We should take serious note of this interpretation. Gratitude is at the very core of another trait that we should all possess – humility. Only when we can acknowledge that our success is, in part, also due to the work of others in partnership, can we truly inculcate our humility. So it is with our relationship with God – only when we understand how we are partners with the Divine in our lives, can we truly be grateful for what we accomplish in our lives.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Vayigash
What does it mean to really approach another person? What does it mean to really approach God? The Rabbinic understanding of the first word of this week’s parashah (vayigash) opens a window into that question. Approaching people and approaching God are mirrors of each other—but there is more than one kind of approach, each of which can underscore different aspects of those relationships. The word vayigash means “to approach” or “to draw near.” Judah approaches Joseph as he prepares to make his argument to offer himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Judah approaches Joseph—whom he does not recognize and only knows is the most powerful man in Egypt (save for Pharaoh)—to offer one last ditch attempt to save his brother Benjamin (and thus also his father Jacob) from pain. It is a physical movement, but what were Judah’s intentions? What was his stance? How did he make his move? What was he feeling in that moment? How did he want Joseph to react? All these questions are up to the reader.
There are three opinions in Genesis Rabbah, each one drawing evidence from elsewhere in the Bible about the use of the word. The first translates the word as “approaching” as in approaching for war. As it says (2 Samuel 10:13): “So Yoav and the people that were with him drew near in battle.” R. Nehemiah said: “approaching” as in conciliation. As it says (Joshua 14:6): “Then the children of Judah drew near to Joshua” – to conciliate him. The Rabbis said: “approaching” as in prayer. As it says (I Kings 18:36): “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet came near.” The word “va-yigash,” according to this midrash, has three possible connotations, drawn from three different biblical sources: to do battle, to appease, and to pray. In each of these, the common thread is a stance of drawing physically closer. When Yoav, King David’s general, did battle against the Arameans (think: hand-to-hand combat), he approached the enemy battle lines with his army. This is also connected to the word “karav”, another word that can mean “to approach, which also means “battle”. One cannot wrestle from afar. Similarly, appeasement is something that cannot be done only with words from afar. It is a stance that can only be fully appreciated when is done in physical proximity to the other. When Caleb and his tribe wanted to secure his territory in the land, in order to make their request of their leader Joshua, they approached him so that Joshua was more likely to hear their case and give them what they asked for. Finally, prayer is also something that involves drawing close physically (think: the bowing and kneeling postures, as well as the stepping forward, that take people physically closer to the object of the prayer). Prayer is probably best understood here as request, the core stance of prayer in the Amidah, and also the context for Elijah’s approach: beseeching God to answer him and bring down fire on the altar in order to show up the prophets of Baal as the false prophets they are. Requesting is not done with words alone; it is done by coming near in body. When we approach, we approach physically. But, when someone draws close, they may be attacking, appeasing, or requesting. All this is contextual, and how you understand Judah’s actions depends on which of these connotations you think is being employed in our parashah. It might seem odd that, out of the four instances of va-yigash, three of them are between people (Judahites and Joshua, Yoav and the Arameans, Judah and Joseph) and one of them is between people and God (Elijah). In fact, this reveals a core assumption of the Midrash, to appease, or to request through prayer. Since the midrash moves freely between the two scenarios, it seems clear that the model of drawing close is the same, whether we are approaching God or approaching another person.
What this means for us today is that we need to be involved with others – it is not sufficient to make proclamations or grand statements; wee must literally “approach” – be there and present when we deal with other people. This personal approach is the basis for all relationships, which are, in effect, the way God moves among us.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Yayishlach
Devastated by her barrenness and immensely jealous of her sister, Rachel starkly demands of her husband Jacob, “Give me sons or I shall die”. She does eventually give birth to a son, but evidently,she means what she has said: Rachel wants sons, in the plural—one will not suffice. So,she names her eldest son Joseph (“may God grant more”), thus giving voice to her fiercedesire for another. Sure enough, she conceives again, and while traveling on the road towards Efrat, Rachel goes into labor. Labor is extremely difficult, and her midwife tries to comfort her by telling her that her wish has been fulfilled—she is having the second son she has yearned for. But in a painfully ironic twist, Rachel, who had insisted that she would die if she did not have sons, now dies in the very process of having one. With her last breath, Rachel names her son Ben-Oni, “son of my misfortune.” Attempting to create some distance between his new son and the tragic circumstances of his birth, Jacob re-names him Benjamin, or “son of my good fortune”.As always, the Torah is laconic about emotion; we are told nothing explicit about what Jacob feels as he buries his wife.Actually,both names are ambiguous. “Ben-Oni” could mean “son of my misfortune/affliction,” but it could also plausibly mean “son of my vigor.” The latter meaning, however, would make it difficult to understand Jacob’s decision to change the child’s name. “Benjamin,” in turn, could mean “son of my good fortune,” but also “son of the south.” Since Rachel’s last words are filled with such sorrow, she becomes associated in the Jewish imagination with weeping and lament. Yet Jewish tradition focuses neither on the tears Jacob likely sheds for Rachel nor on the tears she may well have shed for her own pain, but rather on the tears she sheds for her descendants who are later forced into exile. As the prophet Jeremiah reflects upon the destruction of the northern kingdom, dominated by the tribe of Ephraim, he is reminded of Rachel, Ephraim’s grandmother. Jeremiah invokes Rachel to express the grief felt by mothers for their lost and exiled children. According to Genesis, when he thought his beloved son Joseph had died, Jacob had “refused to be comforted”. Here, Jacob’s inconsolable grief over the fate of his son is transferred to his beloved wife, who similarly refuses consolation over the loss of her children.
God is so moved by Rachel’s tears that God promises to bring all the tears to an end: “Thus said the Lord: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes fromshedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor’—declares the Lord—‘they shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future—declares the Lord—’your children shall return to their country’”. Sorrow will be replaced by joy, exile by homecoming; “the gift of hope overrides the despair of the lamenter.”What does God mean when God tells Rachel that there is reward for her “labor”.A remarkable Midrash imagines Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all pleading with God to no avail concerning the sin of King Manasseh, who placed an idol in the Temple. But then Rachel steps forward and asks, “Master of the World, whose mercy is greater, Your mercy or the mercy of flesh and blood? You must admit that Your mercy is greater. Now, did I not bring mysister Leahinto my home? Jacob worked for my father for years, only to be with me. When I came to enter the bridal canopy, they replaced me with my sister.” Rachel reminds God that she did not protest; on the contrary, she actively aided Leah, sharing with her the sign she had given Jacob to enable him to distinguish between the two of them. Now, she entreats God for a similar display of heroic mercy: “You, too, if Your children brought Your rival into Your house [that is, brought an idol into the Temple] keep Your silence for them.” Despite being unmoved by all the appeals preceding hers, God is stirred by Rachel’s words. “God said to her, ‘You have defended them well. ‘There is reward for your labor’—that is, for your righteousness.Again, we see the character traits of our Ancestors serving as examples in our own lives.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Vayetse
When we meet our foremothers, Leah and Rachel, we immediately learn about their appearance. Specifically, that Rachel was beautiful and Leah, less so: “Lavan had two daughters, the name of the older was Leah and the name of youngest was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were swollen, and Rachel was beautiful in form andbeautiful in appearance”. What motivates these verses? Why does the Torah need to testify to how unattractive Leah is? It almost seems likeharmful speech, to tell us which of the sisters is prettierthan the other. Even if it were necessary to emphasize that Rachel is beautiful, if Jacob loved her because he was attracted to her, does the description of her beauty need to come at Leah’s expense?This unflattering description of Leah seems gratuitous. Jewish Lawdistinguishes between different types of destructive speech. When Rabbinic texts refer to“lashon ha-ra”, it usually refers to relaying information about another person which is truthful, but nevertheless harmful. Yet, this is precisely the point. As the information about Leah’s sad eyes tells us nothing about Rachel and her appearance, we can understand that this verse is not primarily about Rachel at all. It is about Leah. And the Torah is not coming to gossip about Leah’s ugliness, but rather to tell us about her beauty. The Torah only appears to be gossiping about Leah in order to teach us a crucial lesson about Leah and through her story, about the natureof harmful speech.One Rabbinic Commentator quotes apassage from the Talmud and in his footnote says that were it not for the damage to Leah’s eyes she would have been as beautiful as Rachel’. It would have been sufficient to write that “Lavan had daughters,” and we would have known—based on the exegetical principle that when you have an unspecified plural you assume the amount is two—that they were two. ButLeahhadbeen involved with other experiences in life thatleft her bleary-eyed, world-worn, and bereft of her eyelashes. Leah was notborn with sunken eyes; she became less attractive on account of her sorrow.Through Leah’s naming of her children we can see how desperate she was for reassurance, for the love and approval of her husband, and even for the approval of people whom she hardly knows. The Midrash on this entire episode blames it all from the effect of “lashon-ha-ra”–harmful speech whichaffected Leah’s life. Perhaps we can use this episode to remindus of the power of words, and how careful we must be in uttering them.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Toledot
Isaac is a complex figure: at times motivated by inter-personal ties and connected, and at times both an isolated personality. Isaac was forty when he took as his wife Rebecca. He then prayed to God for his wife because she was barren. God acquiesced to him and his wife became pregnant. Isaac himself is not described as longing for a child. What compels him to pray according to the verses is “his wife” and his standing facing her. The description of this scene in a Midrash in amplifies what is occurring between them in two ways. In the biblical text, only Isaac prays, but in the Midrash, Rebecca is also described as praying. Second, the Midrash supplies the content of the prayer, which focuses not only on the request for a child, but also on the relationship between the two of them. He said before the Holy Blessed One: “Master of the Universe! Any future children that You will give me should be from this righteous woman,” and she said the same. Isaac’s behavior is quite different from that of his father, Avraham. When Avraham was in a similar set of circumstances and his wife Sarah was barren, he followed his wife’s suggestion that he try to have children with another woman. He abandons, to a certain degree, his wife in favor of his wife’s servant. Isaac, on the other hand, is described as standing alongside his wife, with her. Looking closely at the way that Rebecca is described by the verses provides some background for understanding the unique bond that exists between them. Rebecca has one salient quality; she is a figure that is bound to other people. She is a relational person who is connected to several different people, and these individual bonds do not impinge on one another—they are all described equivalently.
Isaac is a divided person: So attached to his wife, and so disconnected from his children. Why is it that he can’t bless his sons? What is the context for this inability? Maybe what we have in front of us is a variation on the original Akeidah (the near-sacrifice of Isaac) story: Here is a father who has two children, and who has, according to Isaac’s understanding of the Divine Will, just one blessing. One son will be left behind, sacrificed. Isaac is a father who believes that he has to choose between his oldest and youngest sons, and maybe even between his God and his children, a father who is afraid when he is called to respond and protect by means of the saying, “My father.” He is startled at the exact moment when, as a father, he is expected to supply a solution or response, a father who can’t hear his
son’s cry for order, for an arrangement that is both complex and connected. Esau cries “My father!” four times and in the end, he realizes, just as his father did, that there is no answer beyond silence. He gives up and he cries. The order that Esau is crying out for is one in which fathers don’t eliminate or sacrifice their children. He wants a world in which a father blesses his children, all his children, a world that is complex and connected—of people who love each other facing each other. Maybe, the connection and unconditional acceptance that Esau wants from Isaac is something that he can’t give because he never received it from his father, Avraham. Isaac inherits his father’s stubborn, distant obedience and acts that way with his son. Isaac can love, is able to connect, can see the other and notice someone else’s needs, as we see when in his relationship with Rebecca. But when it comes to his sons, he is distant and distancing. The echo of the Akeidah suggests that Isaac learns about relationships from Rebecca and about disconnect from Avraham.
May we learn from Isaac. about the multiple possibilities of relationship and with open eyes choose between them.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Chaye Sarah
Nothing is more important to us as Jews than the care and burial of our loved ones. Respect for the dead is common in all cultures, but especially so in Judaism. This approach to the laws and customs of mourning and care of the deceased is evident from its original source – this week’s Torah portion, in which we read of Abraham’s need to purchase land for the burial of his beloved Sarah.
Abraham does not even mind “overpaying” for this burial plot; so deep is his concern for the proper care of Sarah. This event is the basis for the bulk of Rabbinic Law concerning the treatment and dignity of the dead. The respect and care for the body of the deceased is paramount until the actual burial; the body must be guarded, it must be washed and dressed appropriately. In fact, it is forbidden to speak in the presence of the deceased! We are commanded to literally bury our loved one by the community, and not leave the gravesite until burial is conducted properly.
But even more than this – our Sages construct an entire set of laws and customs to then help the bereaved survivors. All the aspects of shiva is an attempt to help the mourners heal spiritually. This is when being a part of a community is so crucial. We need each other, whether we be mourners or comforters.
When our time comes to mourn, we pray that we will be comforted by our community, not only here, but for all who mourn in Zion.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Vayera
It is, by all accounts, one of the most remarkable stories in the Torah. Appalled by the corruption and lawlessness of Sodom and Gomorrah, God is moved to respond. But before acting, God makes a choice to consult with Abraham. Alarmed at the prospect of God acting unjustly, Abraham protests, demanding to know whether God will “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty” and asking indignantly, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” “Far be it from You.” There is much that is striking, even captivating about this story: a God who has so much respect for human beings (or at least for the prophets among them) that God will not act without consulting with them; a man who has so much confidence in his moral intuitions that he insists God live up to them; and a God who listens to and engages with God’s bold, presumptuous covenantal partner. And yet familiar as the story is, a close reading suggests that it is at once subtler and more radical than is conventionally assumed.
Rather than emphasizing Abraham’s initiative in challenging God, the text indicates that God actively seeks out an argument from Abraham: “Now the Lord had said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” Why should God share God’s plans with this mere mortal? “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what [the Lord] has promised him.” Considering this introduction, it seems odd to imagine that Abraham here serves as God’s “theological teacher,” as if God needs to be taught the very way the text identifies as God’s own way! So what is going on here? God wants Abraham to train his descendants to do what is just and right, but Abraham cannot teach what he himself has not yet learned. Abraham needs to learn how to stand up for justice and how to plead for mercy, so God places him in a situation in which he can do just that. Subtly, the text communicates a powerful lesson, one that is learned all too slowly, if at all, by those of us blessed with children: We cannot teach our children values which we ourselves do not embody. If Abraham is to father a people who will stand up for what is good and just, he will first have to do so himself.
With this, the Torah (and Rabbinic tradition) teaches us that morality and ethical behavior must be learned before it is taught to others. We must not forget that our children (and grandchildren) are always looking at us. Therefore, our “teaching’ is more than words; it is the way we conduct ourselves in their presence, both in private, and in public. And all of us are under God’s gaze.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Lech Lecha
One of the narratives in this week’s Torah portion tells the story of a family in the process of falling apart. God’s bountiful blessing of wealth paradoxically leads Abram and Lot, the patriarch and his nephew, into deep conflict. Having returned to Canaan together, the two now part ways: Abram remains in the land of Canaan, while Lot departs for Sodom. But the separation between Abram and Lot is not just geographical, it is also characterological. In the hands of the narrator, Abram and Lot become paradigms for two very different ways of perceiving and responding to abundance and wealth.
A close examination of the characters of Abram and Lot reveal a great deal to us. Lot is jealous of Abram for his wealth, and Abram, trying to make amends and stop the quarreling, offers him part of the Promised Land (given to Abram by God!), which Lot rejects. Eventually, Abram must go to Lot’s aid when he and his family are taken by the Sodomites during his travels.
What is crucial for the reader here is to try and understand the motivations of each character. We can certainly learn a great deal about our own issues form this narrative. What do we do when our wealth (which can be simply understood as a basic well-being of material needs) comes into conflict with members of our family? How do we share with others? How do we deal with jealousy?
All these issues have resonance within the Jewish Value System that we should follow. Let us begin to learn from the Torah, and its narratives, to help make those decisions.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Genesis
As we begin the Torah reading in a New Year, this first parasha offers us an insight into both the contrast with the ancient literature of that era, along with the specific insight of Judaism about Human Behavior.
Most of us focus our attention on the beginning of the Torah Portion, the accounts of Creation and Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. However, if we look carefully at the rest of the portion, we notice the subsequent generations creating the first technology of the time: hunting, farming, metallurgy, building, and the like. It is interesting to note that the prevailing culture of the time, based on polytheism, thought that all accomplishments by humanity were simply received instruction from the gods. There was no sense that humanity could initiate these advances on their own; all was dependent on the gods. In stark contrast to this, it is clear from the Torah that our characters there had the innate ability to create technology on their own, with no help from the one God.
However, the moral teaching of the Torah tells us clearly that the early generations of the Human Family, although quite adept at creating the tools necessary for civilization, were, at the same time, extremely violent. Their moral behavior was alarming. One leader boasts that he killed a child who had merely bruised him.
Clearly then, the stage is set (along with the next Torah Portion of Noah) for the Torah’s account of Monotheism and Abraham in the third portion, Lech Lecha. In fact, the rest of the Torah is the framing of a just and moral society, inspired by a loving God. Let’s learn this together as the year unfolds!
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Sukkot
One of the most fascinating aspects of this holiday is the “Ushpizin” – Aramaic for “guests”. As you know, we focus on having our meals during the holiday (weather permitting) in the Sukkah. It’s a great Mitzvah to invite guests to join us at theses meals. Unfortunately, because of Covid, we will not be able to do this during the holiday.
However, the Ushpizin is not affected by the Pandemic. That’s because it is mystical and spiritual in nature. The Kabbalists instituted this custom, which is to invite special “guests” into our Sukkah, in addition to our guests of flesh and blood. Who are these special people? None other than many of our great ancestors, one on each of the seven days of Sukkot. They are (in order): Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David.
What a wonderful way to connect with our history! In addition, we are instructed to learn and speak about each of these “guests”, and to learn the moral characteristics that have made them such an integral part of Jewish Tradition. Much like the Tu Bi’shevat Seder (another Kabbalistic innovation), we can make this experience an opportunity for learning and growth.
So, this year, even if you can’t invite friends to your Sukkah for meals, have the Ushpizin at your table. You’ll be glad you did!
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Ha’azinu
The poem, Ha’azinu, is very beautiful and, a bit inscrutable. One of the ways that the Rabbinic tradition enables us to find meaning in this poem is to have it speak more generally about the Torah and God’s way of interacting with the world. The second and third verses, in particular, reveal a critical lesson regarding how we should relate to the Torah. It teaches us that the way we choose to relate to the Torah can determine its effect on us and its meaning for us.
Moshe’s teaching, which he wants his listener to absorb and be saturated by, is, of course, the Torah. When, in verse 3, Moshe speaks about calling out God’s name and eliciting a response, it seems that he has changed topic from the study of Torah to the praise of God. However, the Talmud understands that this second verse does not represent a shift in focus at all. According to the Talmud, the praising of God also refers to the Torah, specifically: the union of Torah and prayer. It encodes the requirement to make a blessing on the Torah before studying it.
The obligation to make a blessing on the study of Torah carries a lot of significance. The Talmud provides two consequences for neglecting these blessings. It claims that the reason why Torah scholars do not pass on their legacy to their children is that they do not make the blessings over the Torah. And it goes so far as to state that the Temple was destroyed on account of ignoring this mitzvah! However, the Talmud does not explain what it is about this particular blessing that makes it so critical. Why does omitting these blessings have such devastating consequences? In order to understand the significance of this ritual, it is critical to understand its context and where it comes from.
The reason it is so critical to make these blessings and to classify Torah as something that benefits us, as something that is loving and sweet, is that it is not at all clear from our experience that the Torah is primarily pleasant! This is reflected in our Portion this week. The Rabbis understand that the Torah can be difficult; it can be a nurturing and sweet elixir of life, but it can also be a poison. It can set high expectations that might crush us emotionally when we don’t meet them. Worse, if we do not engage with the Torah properly, it can have the opposite of its intended effect; it can make us into worse people rather than better. The Torah can even make us feel further from God and strain our relationship rather than making us feel closer to Him and that we understand each other. Therefore, we need to make a blessing on the Torah, because the success of our relationship with the Torah depends entirely on our attitude towards it. By declaring it an elixir of life, it becomes an elixir of life. If we think of it as a bitter medicine, an elixir of death, it can be hard, if not impossible, for us to swallow.
Perhaps, then, is the reason that Ha’azinu always is read right around Yom Kippur. The notion of confronting life or death is not a literal struggle; it is whether we are willing to accept the Torah as path toward meaningful life, or merely as an obligation. Let us use this metaphor to change our lives (and the lives of all those around us) for the better this New Year of 5781.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Prayer at Rosh Hashanah
Let me start by acknowledging that throughout history, most people prayed because they were in trouble (to alleviate sickness, sorrow, danger) or because they needed something. As the saying goes: There are no atheists in foxholes. Needing something, people naturally turned to a higher power, hoping, fantasizing, praying that God would answer their prayers and magically—against logic or empirical facts of the situation— save them or grant them a request. I, or a loved one, have cancer. There is no medicine that is working. The doctors have given up. Then people turned to God and asked for a miracle—to denature the pathology, to rouse the body to counterattack, and so on. The problem with that approach to prayer is that more and more scientific evidence has confirmed that natural processes operate by predictable laws, actions, and consequences. In religious terms, this means that God does not tinker or trifle with the laws of nature. There has been more disciplined recording and analysis of treatment and outcomes. The number of magical cures or outcomes have shrunk. Even the ‘miracles’ seem connected, or more highly correlated, to internal physical factors rather than to external interventions, such as a divine response to a person’s prayers. Under the circumstances, secular attitudes have grown steadily among the more educated and the more highly trained scientifically. The question arises more sharply: Why pray? Let me add a further word of introduction—reflecting some of my personal thinking. I believe that Judaism’s main contribution to the world (directly and through Christianity and Islam and its influence on Western civilization) has been not just the understanding of God as Creator and universal grounding of existence. Rather, it is the message of tikkun olam, that God intends, wants, and needs the world to become perfect. Judaism calls on human beings to live their lives and work on this tikkun. No less important is the Jewish teaching of a method to perfect the world. God has entered a covenant, a partnership, with humans, to repair the world together. Voluntarily, non-coercively, out of love, the two partners are pledged to work to overcome poverty, hunger, oppression, all forms of discrimination and injustice, war, and sickness—in order to heal people and make the world whole. This means that God will not bestow perfection magically or coerce people to do the right thing. God will help those who help themselves.
I also believe that there is a history to the covenant. As a true loving partner, God seeks human empowerment and dignity. As humans become more competent, God self-limits to invite and encourage humans to do more and take more responsibility for the outcome. (The age of prophecy ends; instead, people, Rabbis according to the Talmud, discover God’s instructions and directions.) From the beginning, human medical efforts are affirmed as covenantal actions—rather than seen as encroachments on Divine prerogatives (for example, Exodus 21:18 “and he shall surely heal”). As medicine becomes more competent, the Divine interventions come through human agency. The doctors’ miracles are the Divine interventions. What then is the role of prayer in an era of greater and growing human competence? And in an age when we seek to shake off magical thinking in order to relate to God more out of love, out of partnership, rather than out of servile need to win God’s favor and out of self-interested desire for favors? I would propose three functions for prayer. All humans live inside their own skins. One’s perspective is skewed by being focused on one’s self. By turning to God in prayer, one is motivated to move beyond a self-centered or narcissistic perspective for a moment to see the world from a Divine perspective—the whole world perspective. In praying, I see myself as a finite creature within the great whole. The world is not centered on me. This makes me (the individual) no less important. After all, every human being is an image of God— godlike, endowed with the intrinsic dignities of infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. But the universe does not rotate around me. When the individual prays and
sees the world from Divine perspective, they see the incredible beauty and in prayer, I see the world from the Divine perspective. We recognize how much goodness has been granted in our lives; how much health, life experience, intelligence, growth has brought one’s life (and the lives of our loved ones) this far. This is expressed in prayers of praise and thanksgiving (not request), which have always been part of traditional prayers. This category would include blessings for food, for health—“who straightens up the bowed down,” “who gives the tired new strength,” “who heals the sick”—and for the normal operations of our bowels and all the other openings and closings of tubes in our bodies (heart, brain, mouth). The second category of prayer is particularly significant in our time when humans are more competent. Sometimes, I call this category the ‘prayers of the powerful’ instead of the past ‘prayers of the powerless.’ It is about knowing one’s limits and respecting the capacity and dignity of the other. Instead of the incurable patient pleading for a miracle, there is the prayer of the doctor: God, guide my hand; God help me focus my judgement and wisdom to make the right diagnosis and prescriptions. Teach me to respect the patient and enlist their choices, to engage them in the therapeutic process. Help me see that I am not God. Remind me to respect the patient’s God-given body, to work with its natural rhythms in devising a cure. Teach me to accept my finitude and express it in not overtreating, in not turning the patient into a guinea pig for experimentation. Inspire me with love so that I will get up in the middle of the night and make a home visit to better understand and treat the sick person. There is an equivalent prayer for every businessperson, therapist, teacher, trainer, supervisor, and so on.
Finally, there is a third form of prayer: to join with a congregation, to become part of the Jewish people or the larger community, to identify with the concerns and needs of the whole nation. In such a case, I may even say the old prayers—the unchanged words even of prayers whose magical thinking or retributionist overtone I may not accept any more. In saying these prayers, I identify with my people and its tradition. I acknowledge that the covenant to perfect the world (or to sustain individual lives) has been going on for thousands of years. I embrace past generations and express my gratitude to them even when I disagree with their words or some specific values. Still I acknowledge with gratitude their contribution, that they brought us and the covenant this far and that I am the beneficiary. At such a moment, I open to the needs of the Jewish People and of the whole world and am inspired to join in the effort of tikkun olam.
At such moments, sometimes, I open up to God—not as the divine vending machine but as partner, sustainer, lover, redeemer of my people and myself. Thus, these prayers become prayers of solidarity, thanksgiving, and of eternal love.
Rabbinic Thoughts: Parshat Nitzavim
The Torah Portion this week brings up the question of the enduring sanctity of the land of Israel. The story of God’s promise of the land to Abraham’s descendants might be part of a one-time narrative of birthing a nation into history, a history that includes conquering a plot of land in the Middle East and building a model society there.
However, once that story ends in the destruction of the Temple and exile, it might be that a new chapter begins. Even if God’s covenant with the Jewish people is eternal, perhaps the promise of landed sovereignty expires, and with it any notion of the enduring sanctity of the land of Israel.
By contrast, we might read the boundaries of the land of Canaan as laid out in the Torah as binding for all time, thus designating a plot of land that is eternally sacred; or it is at least ripe for sanctity whenever the Jewish people control it with sufficient power and inhabit it with sufficient numbers.
The deeper question here is as follows: Is the land of Israel an important historical site or is it an enduring sacred space that constantly beckons the Jewish people to return to it even when they have left it for a long time? The Torah itself already seems to weigh in partially on this question. The Torah here describes a time in history when the Jewish people will be on the receiving end of all the terrible curses that the Torah prescribes for non-compliance with the covenant, which includes exile and dispersion.
It is foretold that from this place of dispersion, the people will turn to God and listen to the Divine voice once again. In response, “God will gather them from all the nations, no matter how far away. Our ancestors inherited, and you shall inherit it.” This clearly indicates that the people are meant to return to the land, which seems to retain some enduring significance for the Jewish people even while they are in exile from it.
But, a slew of other questions remain: Was the land stripped of its sanctity upon their exile? Does it get re-sanctified upon their return? If the answer to both questions is yes, can this process be repeated indefinitely or is there some limit on the number of exiles that either strip the land of its sanctity or keep alive the possibility of re-sanctifying it upon the people’s return?
The Rabbinic sources indicate clearly that Israel is an enduring Holy Land, and there is an eternal need to populate it, and preserve it as the central force in Judaism. Thus, we are the only People that have a specific piece of land tied to its national destiny. This is why Israel is so important to us.
Rabbi Moshe Saks