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Parashat Re’eh – 55 Mitzvot – but who’s counting? (#Torah)

Posted by rabbiart on August 1, 2010

Except for Sefer Breshit, in which there are few of the 613 mitzvot, I always like to start studying the Parshah by reviewing the mitzvot that are associated with it according to Sefer HaHinuch – the Book of Education.  Once I’ve look at the list, I like to ask some questions:

  • How many of these mitzvot apply to our time and place?
  • How many apply to both men and women?
  • How many can only be observed in Israel?
  • How many might require ‘adjustment’ because of changed sensibilities?

The list in Parshat Re’eh is:

#436:  to destroy an idol and all that serves it

#437: not to erase holy writings, the written name of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, or the Temple

#438: to bring all obligatory or voluntary offerings at the next pilgrimage festival

#439: not to sacrifice holy offerings outside the Temple

#440: to sacrifice all offerings at the Temple, an not anywhere outside of it

#441: to redeem animals consecrated for offerings which have subsequently become blemished

#442: not to eat the second tithe of grain outside Jerusalem

#443: not to consume the second tithe of wine outside Jerusalem

#444: not to consume the second tithe of oil outside Jerusalem

#445: not to eat an unblemished firstborn animal outside Jerusalem

#446: not to eat a hattat or asham offering outside the Temple

#447: not to eat the flesh of an olah (burnt offering)

#448: not to eat offerings of lesser holiness before their blood is sprinkled on the altar

#449: kohanim should not eat bikkurim until they are set down on the Temple grounds

#450: not to neglect the Levites by failing to give them their gifts

#451: to observe shihitah (ritual slaying)

#452: not to eat a limb torn from a living animal

#453: to attend to bringing an animal offering from another land to the Temple

#454: not to add to the precepts of the Torah in any way

#455: not to diminish the precepts of the Torah in any way

#456: to ignore anyone prophesying in the name of an idol – or idolatry

#457: to have no affection for an enticer to idolatry

#458: not to relinquish hatred for an enticer to idolatry

#459: not to rescue from death an enticer to idol-worship
#460: that someone enticed to idolatry should not speak in favor of the enticer

#461: that someone enticed to idolatry should not refrain from speaking out against the enticer

#462: not to entice an Israelite toward idol-worship

#463: to examine witnesses thoroughly and completely

#464: to burn a city gone astray into idolatry

#465: not to rebuild to its former condition a city gone astray into idolatry

#466: to derive no benefit from the wealth of a city gone astray into idolatry

#467: not to gash oneself as idol-worshippers do

#468: not to cause baldness, tearing the hair in grief over the dead

#469: not to eat holy animal offerings that became disqualified

#470: to examine the marks of a fowl to see if it may be eaten

#471: to eat no unclean, non-kosher locusts, nor any winged insects

#472: not to eat the flesh of any kosher animal that died of itself

#473: to observe the second tithe

#474: to tithe for the poor in the second and sixty years of the seven year cycle

#475: not to demand payment for a loan after the shmitah year has passed

#476: to exact a loan rigorously from a heathen

#477: to relinquish debts in the shmitah year

#478: not to refrain from sustaining a poor person and providing what is needed

#479: the mitzvah of tzedakah

#480: not to avoid lending money to the poor because of the onset of the shmitah year

#481: not send away empty handed a hebrew manservant when he goes free

#482: to give a bonus to a hebrew manservant as his discharge

#483: to do no work with animals that have been consecrated for offerings

#484: not to shear animals consecrated for offerings

#485: not to eat hametz after noon the day before pesach

#486: not to leave over to the third day any meat of the pesach offering at pesach

#487: not to offer the pesach offering on an individual’s altar

#488: to be happy on the pilgrimage festivals

#489: to appear on the pilgrimage festivals at the Temple

#490: not to go on the pilgrimage festival without an animal offering

And there you have it, fifty five mitzvot, primarily about idol worship and Temple sacrifices. These are not mitzvot that sit easily in the progressive mind. The Temple is no more, and although some prayerbooks call for its restoration, I doubt that I have ever davened with anyone who really wants to see sacrificial rites restored. The mitzvot about idolatry, in their pshat form, pose difficult questions living in a time when more, not less tolerance, for the religions of other people is so desperately needed.

Here and there we see a mitzvah that we can easily and eagerly embrace, especially those mandating tzedakah. We also see a mitzvah that has – in the past couple of decades – been caught up in political fights in Europe, and most recently, New Zealand, where prohibitions against ritual slaughter have been enacted into law under the guise of prohibiting cruelty to or maltreatment of animals in the moments before they are killed for food.

Much to ponder, much to wrestle with.

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More Mitzvahs, More Mitzvahs

Posted by rabbiart on August 26, 2009

We left off our study of Ki Tetzei’s mitzvot with #556 – not to punish anyone compelled to commit a transgression, or in the Hebrew שלא לענוש האנוס. The Torah’s verse on point deals with the case of a man who forces himself on a woman without her consent, and states clearly that guilt is not ascribed to the woman, and she is not punished in any way וְלַנַּעֲרָ לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה דָבָר . We can pause here for two thoughts; the first is to notice the alarmingly large number of societies where – to this day – the blame and punishment falls not on the man but the woman, and the disturbing tendency of even women’s rights organizations and their advocates to gloss over these terrible injustices in favor of continually hounding you know which country I mean where – in the main – women have equal rights and protections. We can only lament the fact that some of the more traditional segments of klal yisrael are a bit less progressive in this regard.

The Torah anticipates “more modern” systems of jurisprudence which also operate to avoid punishing individuals who commit offenses under compulsion, against their will, and without intent.  This includes the three cardinal transgressions which one is not supposed to commit even under the threat of death.  For a system often described (some might say accused) of being patriarchal or male oriented, the Halachah makes an interesting exception to this rule.  A male who has – under duress – forbidden sexual congress is still subject to penalty, because, as Raba says in Talmud Yebamoth 53B (Soncino translation) “there is no compulsion in sexual intercourse since erection depends entirely on the will!

The specific case is made into a general rule that applies in every place and time – that we are duty-bound to to punish a compelled person with any penalty.

We come next to a seemingly strange and cruel mitzvah – #557 the duty of a rapist to take his victim for a wife.  Having just absolved – of any court imposed punishment – a woman who is the victim of a rape, does the Torah now intend to sentence her to a life of living with the rapist?  Not only this, but the next mitzvah – #558 – is that the rapist is never to divorce the victim.  How can this be? How can the Torah be so cruel as to command these mandates?!

The answer is clear. The Torah does not intend for these consequences of rape to occur.  The Torah (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing for convenience) designs – and is designed for – a world in which people carefully consider the consequences of their contemplated actions.  The Torah firmly believes – as it were – in the power of deterrence. To quote from Sefer HaHinuch “when he [the rapist] is aware [of the consequences of his actions] he will overcome his passion and refrain from committing this villany, in view of this penalty.

Rabbinic tradition quickly learned that deterrence is not a fail-safe mechanism. Rapes do occur. Men are not dissuaded by potential consequences.  Gradually, the Halachah created a set of exceptions and conditions so that a raped woman would not be sentenced to marriage and life alongside a person who had committed a horrible crime upon her.

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Ki Tetzei – We’ve got Mitzvahs

Posted by rabbiart on August 25, 2009

This parshah has a special significance to me because it is the Bat Mitzvah portion of our older daughter. You try helping a 12 year girl embrace a parshah that begins with describing the treatment of women captured in war. And you thought bridge requires many a finesse! Hah!  If that weren’t enough, the parshah has the most mitzvot of any parshah in the Torah. There are 27 positively phrased and 47 negatively phrased mitzvot.  (No mitzvah should ever be described as “negative”) According to Sefer HaHinuch, these are the first 25 mitzvot in Ki Tetze. Even this subset of the Ki Tetzei mitzbot shows us how the Torah encompasses every aspect of life.

532 the law of a beautiful woman –  אֵשֶׁת, יְפַת-תֹּאַר –  captured in war

533 not to sell a beautiful woman captured in war

534 not to make a beautiful woman captured in war work after a slave after conjugal intimacy

535 the law of hanging someone after his execution

536 not to leave someone hung overnight on the gallows

537 to bury someone executed by court order

538 to return a lost object to its owner

539 not to ignore a lost object

540 not to leave someone else’s beast lying under its burden

541 to lift up a load for an Israelite

542 a woman should not wear men’s clothing

543 a man should not wear women’s clothing

544 not to take the mother-bird with the young in the nest

545 to send the mother-bird away from the nest

546 the duty to build a parapet

547 not to leave a stumbling-block around

548 not to sow mixed kinds of seeds in a vineyard in Israel

549 not to eat the produce of mixed seeds in a vineyard in Israel

550 not to do work with two kinds of animals together

551 not to wear cloth of wool and linen

552 that a man should marry (a woman)

553 that a wife who is motzi shem ra should stay with her husband forever

554 that a man who is motzi shem ra is never to divorce his wife

555 the duty of a court to enforce a proper sentence of stoning

556 not to punish anyone compelled to commit a transgression.

Of course there are some mitzvot in just this list alone that we might feel called upon to reinterpret. But no worries there, because reinterpreting the mitzvot to fit in with the just and proper needs of our time is a tradition that dates back at least to  the great sage Rabbi Hillel.

Each of these mitzvot cry out for further study and serious contemplation, either to understand why they are given and what they mean, or to ponder how we might go about designing a society in which they can be carried.  And how we might motivate ourselves to observe them.

To borrow from The Sound of Music, let’s start at the beginning, its a very good place to start.  We don’t need a Jewish Israeli on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition to understand the lure – to men – of a beautiful woman.  (By the way, does this mean that the Jewish people have finally become “normal”?)  Unfortunately, the bad conduct of soldiers seems to be as endemic as war itself.

Passing over the distressing subject of capital execution – but remembering the statement that a court which executed one person in 70 years has blood on its hands – we arrive we arrive at the subject of  basic human courtesy; the duty to help other’s keep their possessions.  We press onward through the list and find ourselves commanded with not one but two mitzvot to be kind to birds. While that subject is in the air  we learn that it is our duty to keep people from falling off our roof.

After mixing in some prohibited mixtures we find ourselves  with one easy (or… maybe not) and two mysterious mitzvot having to do with marriage.

The Torah – and rabbinic judaism – did not find itself compelled as we are in our day to wrestle with the issue of two people wanting to construct a loving, life-long relationship, who happen through the mystery of HaShem’s creative powers to be of the same sex.  Our mitzvah here (#552 in the list) is not concerned with either permitting or prohibiting same-sex union; it lives in a world where man-woman marriage is taken for granted.  This mitzvah details the three ways in which a marriage may be effected; by money, by a document, or by magic of loving union that ought to take place in the privacy of two people (Hollywood sex videos on Youtube notwithstanding).  The Jewish wedding today – marriage by ceremony – is nowhere mentioned in the Torah, nor is it described in this mitzvah, although we see marriage by document as part of the “modern” Jewish wedding.  It was a great simchah and honor to watch over the Ketubah signing at our younger daughter’s wedding, much less than to actually stand under the Chuppah and assist the bride and groom to marry each other.

Mitzvot 553 and 554 seem at first reading to make no sense whatsoever.  At the heart of these mitzvot is a great question that is with us to this day. How do we discourage individuals from bad or unacceptable actions that cause harm, without causing harm by the methods we employ to prevent the bad action?

These two mitzvot apply to the specific case of a husband publicly accusing his wife of not being a virgin on the day of the wedding, and claiming that she became “not a virgin” after the couple were betrothed to each other. We could take refuge in the easy way out by mentioning that Jewish weddings now combine betrothal and marriage into a single ceremony. As long as bride and groom stay under the chuppah, it is exceedingly unlikely that the bride will change from virgin to non-virgin after the couple has been officially betrothed.  Provided, of course, that the officiating clergy are not too long winded to the point of distraction and inattention 🙂 .

The specific interpretation of how husband and wife are too live forever in enmity, as well as how we might do anything other than chuck these two mitzvot overboard entirely leave me with no choice but to take refuge in “that’s beyond the scope of this particular post”.  Better yet would be to simply say that – in my time as a Rabbi – no husband and wife have ever come to me with a dispute on this issue; it should always remain so.

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כִּי תִשָּׂא – Mitzvot in this Parshah

Posted by rabbiart on March 13, 2009

According to Sefer HaHinuch there are nine mitzvot in this parshah; four positive and five negative. The mitzvot are
105 – To give half a shekel each year. It applies to all (male) Israelites from the age of twenty and up. It is based on Shemot 30:13.

106 – To rinse our hands and feet when ministering in the sanctuary. It applies to the kohanim and is based on Shemot 30:19-20.

107 – To make anointing oil for each high priest and king. It is an obligation for the community and is based on Shemot 30:31.

108 – That no outsider (anyone not a kohen or King) should be anointed with the anointing oil. It is based on Shemot 30:32 and applies to both adult men and women.

109 – Not to make the anointing oil according to the scriptural formula. It applies to adult men and women. According to the Gemara, anointing oil was never produced except the oil that Moshe miraculously made in the wilderness. So how do we have anointing oil to use when needed? Miraculously, it was “self-replenishing”; whatever was used for anointing was automatically refilled, and there will be oil when the Mashiach comes and the Temple is rebuilt. it is based on Shemot 30:32.

110 – Not to make incense according to the Torah’s formula. The incense works the same way as the anointing oil, and the mitzvah is based on Shemot 30:37.

111 – Not to eat or drink of anything offered up to an idol. This mitzvah applies in all times and places and to both men and women. It is based on Shemot 34:12 and 34:15.

112 – To let the land lie fallow during the Shmitah year. This mitzvah is very similar to what our author describes in Mitzvah 84 that occurs in Parshat Mishpatim. The Shmittah year applies to both men and women, but only in the land of Biblical Israel, and only when Israel is occupied according to the dictates of the Torah. This mitzvah is based on Shemot 34:21, and Mitzvah 84 is based on Shemot 23:11.

113 – Not to eat meat and milk that were cooked together. It applies to all of Israel and is based on Shemot 34:21.

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It’s a Mystery, Yes it Is – פרשת חקת

Posted by rabbiart on June 30, 2008

Our parshah this Shabbat opens with the commandment to concerning the red heifer – פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה . This commandment is considered by almost all Torah scholars to be the most mysterious commandments in the Torah.  So we rely this week on perhaps the greatest of all modern Torah scholars – Nehama Leibowitz –  אליה השלום    – for help in studying the commandment.  Professor Leibowitz writes (Studies in BaMidbar) “Our Sages observed that it was one of the matters which even the wisdom of the wisest of men failed to fathom:” and quotes from Midrash Yalkut Shimoni

This is the statute of the Torah”. R. Isaac opened with the text: “All this I have tried to fathom by wisdom…. Thus spoke Solomon: I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but as soon as I reach this chapter about the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned, “I said I will get wisdom, but it was far from me.

Professor Leibowitz then goes on to state, in a remarkable display of humility (an attribute we should all emulate in everything we do) “We shall similarly not pretend to fathom it completely but shall present some of the observations of our commentators and Sages.”

After presenting an explanation from R. Joseph Bechor Shor and another explantion from Sforno, she brings the explanation of the great Talmudic sage Rabi Yohanan ben Zakkai, with the prefatory remark that “His words are highly instructive for us today.”

A certain heathen asked R. Yohanan ben Zakkai: The rites you perform in connection with the Red Heifer smell of witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, grind it and take its ashes. You sprinkle two or three drops on one of you who is contaminated with corpse defilement and say to him, You are clean. Said R. Yohanan b. Zakkai to him: Have you never been possessed by a demon? He answered: No. – Have you never seen a man possessed by a demon? He answered: Yes. – And what do you do for him? – We bring herbs and make them smoke beneath him, and throw water on him and the demon is exorcised. He answered: Let your ears hear what your mouth has spoken. The spirit of defilement is the same as your demon. We sprinkle on it the waters of purification and it is exorcised.

After the heathen had left, R. Yohanan’s disciples said to him: Him you have put off with a straw, but what answer will you give us? He replied to them. By your life, neither does the dead defile nor the water purify, but the Holy One blessed be He said: It is a statute I have laid down, a decree that I have decreed and you are not authorised to violate my decree.

What words of the Kadosh Bar’chu are highly instructive for us today?  Obviously, Professor Leibowitz is referring to the final sentence of R. Zakkai’s teaching.

This brings us to the question of authority in our own religious practice.  Considering only the three “major branches” of American Judaism; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, we see differing approaches. (By the way, I don’t like the labels, and I don’t like the situation where Klal Yisrael finds itself divided into so many different and opposing communities, but this also is not new).  The Reform movement has taken the position, so to speak, that each individual educated Jew should make her own decisions about what to take from our tradition.  This is sometimes expressed that Halacha has a vote but not a veto.  The Conservative movement practice is that the Halacha, as interpreted by Rabbis, and in particular the Rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, interpret an ever evolving Halacha in the light of historical developments and a consideration of modern times.  Orthodoxy (a broad label for a variety of religous communities) generally takes the position that Halacha, as expressed in the Oral Torah, does not change; only the understanding of it. (And yes, each of these descriptions is a broad generalization and an over simplification).

Authority is perhaps a difficult concept for us moderns, unless of course we’re talking about our own authority and our drive to impose our authority on others.  Consider this. Do you accept the concept of an authority is higher than your own?

Shabbat Shalom

Additional Notes:

  1. You can read Professor Leibowitz’s commentary here.
  2. “Put off with a straw”.  In Hebrew the phrase is   קנה של דרש or “weak reed of an explanation”.

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Parshat Kedoshim

Posted by rabbiart on April 30, 2008

This Shabbat we return to the weekly Torah reading cycle with Kedoshim. Kedoshim is a fascinating parshah; it is only two chapters long, a total of 64 verses, yet according to Sefer HaHinuch it contains fifty one commandments. The overwhelming majority of these commandments have to do with social justice.

The first commandment we find in Kedoshim is perhaps the foundation of all social justice; to have reverence for our parents. We find this commandment linked, it appears, to keeping the sabbath, and both are bracketed by declarations that Ado-nai is our G-d. Here are verses two and three of chapter 19. (if you don’t see Hebrew, but see a strange looking set of characters, you need to add Hebrew support to your computer. If you need help, contact Rabbi Art)

ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. ג אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

In verse two we are told to be kadosh because Ado-nai is kadosh. Then we are instructed to revere our parents and to keep HaShem’s Sabbaths, because Ado-nai is our G-d. After several “ritual” commandments, we are then given a couple of dozen commandments that are concerned with providing food for the poor, acting honestly, and not perverting the natural order of the world.

Regarding the natural order of the world, we are given several commandments that require us to abstain from mixing divergent species, a prohibition against tattoos, and a repetition, with a slight variation, of the commandment to have reverence for our parents. In this last case, we are instructed not to curse our parents.

In all, there are fifty one commandments in Parshat Kedoshim according to Sefer HaHinuch. According to the numbering scheme used, these are numbers #212 to #262.

  1. Reverence for father and mother
  2. Not to turn astray after idol-worship in thought or word
  3. Not to make an idol, for oneself or another
  4. Not to eat left-over meat from sacrifices (notar)
  5. To leave the edge of one’s field unreaped for the poor
  6. Not to reap the very last end of one’s field
  7. To leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor
  8. Not to gather stalks of grain that fell away during the harvest
  9. To leave a part of a vineyard unreaped for the poor
  10. Not to remove absolutely all the fruit of a vineyard
  11. To leave fallen grapes in a vineyard for the poor
  12. Not to gather the fallen grapes in a vineyard but to leave them for the poor
  13. Not to steal anything of value
  14. Not to deny it when something of value is in our possession
  15. Not to swear over a false denial about something of value
  16. Not to swear falsely
  17. Not to withhold another person’s property wrongly
  18. Not to commit robbery
  19. Not to delay the payment of a hired hand
  20. Not to curse any Jew, whether man or woman
  21. Not to make a trusting person stumble through misleading advice
  22. Not to pervert justice in a civil judgment
  23. Not to honor an eminent person at a trial
  24. That a judge should render judgment with righteousness
  25. Not to gossip
  26. Not to stand idly by when someone’s blood is shed
  27. Not to hate one’s brethren
  28. The religious duty to rebuke a fellow-jew for improper behavior
  29. Not to shame a Jew
  30. Not to take revenge
  31. Not to bear a grudge
  32. To have affection for a fellow-jew
  33. Not to mate two animals of different species
  34. Not to sow different kinds of seed together in the land of Israel
  35. Not to eat the first three years’ produce of a tree
  36. That the fruit of a tree’s fourth year is hallowed
  37. Not to eat or drink in the manner of a glutton or drunkard
  38. Not to practice augury nor divination
  39. Not to practice conjuring
  40. Not to round off the temples of the head
  41. Not to marr the edges of the beard
  42. Not to inscribe any tattoo in one’s flesh
  43. To have reverent awe for the sanctuary
  44. Not to act as an ov (medium)
  45. Not to function as a yidoni (wizard)
  46. To honor wise scholars
  47. Not to cheat with any kind of measure
  48. To make sure that scales, weights and measures are correct
  49. Not to curse one’s father or mother
  50. That a bet din should burn to death anyone so deserving
  51. Not to follow the customs or ways of the Amorites

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Parshat Tetzave

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

If the parshiot had topical rather than incidental names, then this parshah would be called “Ner Tamid” for the light which is to be perpetually lit in front of the altar. “Now command the Israelites that they take pure beaten olive oil for a light, to lift a constant lamp in the meeting tent in front of the curtain before the testimony, so that Aaron and his sons will light it from evening to morning before G-d. It is a permanent law for the generations of the Israelites.”

Note that this commandment, although to be carried out by Aaron and his descendants, is given directly to the Israelites. This is underscored by the unusual ending “me’et b’nei Yisrael” (from the Israelites). The light referred to is a seven branched candelabra (burning oil on wicks and not candles).

The “Eternal Light” as it is often called, was not intended to be perpetually on. It was lit each evening in the late afternoon, and burned through until the morning. Because it is specifically commanded, the rabbis understood that the light should even be lit, and tended to, on Shabbat. According to Rashi “tamid’ means “regularly scheduled” or “from night to night”. However, Nachmanides quotes Rashi and disagrees with his interpretation of “Tamid”. He instead argues that the lights were in fact constantly lit.

Does it matter whether the Ner Tamid is lit constantly, or re-lit every day? Maybe not, and since we no longer have priests and levites manually kindling fires in the Temple for sacrifices as well as light, the question might be moot. But it is still our job to take care and create a place to meet with HaShem, so that HaShem may dwell amongst us, and be our G-d.

Within this parshah there are seven mitzvot, all having to do with the interior of the sanctuary.

#98 to kindle the menorah in the sanctuary
#99 that the kohanim should wear special garments
#100 that the breastplate should not come loose from the ephod on the kohen gadol
#101 not to tear the me’il (robe) of the kohanim
#102 to eat the flesh of the hattat (sin-offering) and the asham (guilt offering)
#103 to burn incense twice a day on the altar
#104 not to burn or offer up anything on the altar except the twice daily incense

Except for the first of these mitzvot, it is hard to find any vestige of the remaining six mitzvot derived from this parshah. We no longer offer sacrifices or incense on the altar, and we no longer have kohanim wearing special garments and performing sacrificial services in the Temple or the Tent of Meeting. On the other hand, the mitzvah of the Sanctuary Lights is given as a permanent law – hukat olam ldorotam – a permanent law for your generations.

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד. בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָעֵדֻת, יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו מֵעֶרֶב עַד-בֹּקֶר–לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתָם, מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

There are sixteen places in the Torah where the phrase hukat olam is used in connection with a mitzvah. The first two are the Pesach sacrifice, and the observance of the Pesach holiday. The third is our passage. The fourth and last in Shemot is also from this parshah; the commandment concerning the priestly costumes. The fifth is a prohibition against eating the blood of ritual sacrifices, and the sixth is the set-aside portions for Aaron and his descendants. The seventh is given after the death of Aaron’s two sons, and prohibits drinking wine in the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting). The eighth occurrence details the holiday of Yom Kippur. The next is a prohibition against offering sacrifices to satyrs. The tenth through thirteenth come closely together, repeating Yom Kippur and providing for the pilgrimage festivals; Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. The fourteenth repeats the institution of the Ner Tamid. The fifteenth mention prescribes that there should be one law for the citizen and the sojourner. (Appearing to deal specifically with ritual offerings by fire). The last permanent law specifies that only the Levites shall do the service in the Ohel Mo’ed.

So we see right away that a number of Torah provisions that are described as permanent for all generations are no longer possible to observe, while some are easily accessible. Celebrating our holidays is certainly available to us in our day, but what are we to make of – and do with – priestly costumes and the duties of the Levites? What are we supposed to learn from this week’s parshah? Not an easy question to answer, but like any Jew, I choose to answer these questions by posing even more questions. As someone once said in answer to the question of “Why do Jews ask so many questions?” Why not?

We might bring these questions to our study of the Torah portion.

  • Is there, or should there be, a role for Cohanim and Levi’im (priests and levites) in a contemporary Jewish community?
  • If there is a role, what might it be?
  • If we have effectively “lost” roles for Cohanim and Levi’im, what have we lost from our tradition and our community, if anything?
  • Other than the obvious (and possibly applicable) answer of Rabbis and Cantors, is there a contemporary analog of Cohanim and Levi’im?
  • Might the Torah be having something to say about our current dilemmas around immigration when it says (in a ritual context) that there should be one law for both the citizen and the sojourner?
  • What do we “do” with the passages that describe priestly vestments? Is there a teaching here that we can use in our contemporary Jewish lives? Or something to learn about how we organize our Jewish communities?

Whatever the answers to these questions, or other questions we might bring, the Torah itself tells us what the purpose of these passages are when we get to Shemot Chapter 29:45-46. As Casey Stengel is reputed to have said in some other context “You could look it up. In fact, here’s an online reference to Chapter 29 so you can go and read what the Torah says is the purpose of the Ohel Mo’ed and everything within.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat Mishpatim

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

This weeks parshah, Mishpatim (Judgments) is aptly named, because it contains within it 53 different mitzvot. You can see the full list of mitzvot here. During the remainder of our Torah reading cycle until we approach the end of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we will be almost inundated with mitzvot. Mitzvot come to teach us how to behave, and it is through our behavior that we construct the society in which we live. At times it makes sense to concern ourselves with the details of observing particular mitzvot, but there is also a time to consider their deeper meaning and significance. Last week during the Shabbat morning Torah study I proposed a series of questions about mitzvot, and suggested that these questions will underlie our study over the remainder of spring and summer.

As you study, or better yet, fulfill a Mitzvah, consider these aspects of the particular Mitzvah, and the purpose of Mitzvot in general.
Regarding the inner self.
What is going on inside us when we observe commandments?
What is the affect on us that observing the commandment has?
What is going on inside the mind of God when God gives us commandments?
Regarding the outer self.
What are we doing with our bodies when we observe a commandment?
What effect are we having on the world, on other Jews around us when we observe a commandment?
Regarding the other.
What effect are we having on non-Jews when we observe a commandment.

What we say with our mouths is important – and has an impact on the world. Several of the mitzvot in the parshah deal with matters of speech. What we do with our bodies and possessions can have an even bigger impact on the world. The concept is easy to understand, but living up to it can sometimes be a challenge for us. “Translating” the mitzvot from their original context to the world we live in is not always straightforward, but try this experiment and see how you come out. Read the list of the 57 mitzvot for this parshah. Some will be easy to understand, others a bit obscure. Count how many of the mitzvot on the list (its only a list, there is no explanation) are (a) understandable to you, (b) do-able by you, and most importantly (c) if you are already observing them.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat Bo

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

The parsha this week is Bo. With this parsha we begin to get the traditional mitzvot for the Jewish people. Four of the mitzvot are found in Sefer Breshit; the rest are derived from the remaining four books of the Torah. In parshat Bo there are twenty mitzvot; nine positive and eleven negative. The mitzvot are listed down below; in this section we look at what it means (in the Jewish context) to be free.

One possible definition of freedom is that a free person can do whatever he or she wants without limitation. This can’t possibly be correct, because we share our planet with everyone else, and our actions can and almost always do affect others. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote ““The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” A second definition of freedom was expressed by Kris Kristofferson in the song “Me and Bobby McGee” as “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”.

The Jewish meaning of freedom was already hinted at in chapter 10, verse 3, where Moshe and Aharon say to Pharoah “Thus says Adonai, G-d of the Hebrews, ‘let My people go, that they may serve Me’.” For Jews, the essential attribute of freedom is that we are now able to receive the Torah at Sinai, and learn how to live our lives partnering with G-d in completing the work of creation. The connection between the freedom we gain by escaping Mitzrayim and the revelation at Mt. Sinai is embodied in our practice of counting the Omer; the days between Pesach and the holiday of Shavuot.

Mitzvot in Parshat Bo

#4 to establish the months
#5 ritual slaying of the Pesach offering
#6 eating the Pesach offering
#7 not eating the Pesach offering slightly roasted or cooked
#8 not to leave offer any flesh of the Pesach offering
#9 to remove hametz
#10 eating matzah on Pesach
#11 having no hametz in our possession on Pesach
#12 not to eat anything containing hametz during Pesach
#13 not to give an apostate any of the Pesach offering to eat
#14 not to give any part of the Pesach offering to a partial proselyte nor a ger toshav
#15 not to take any part of the Pesach offering outside the home
#16 not to break any bone of the Pesach offering
#17 that no uncircumcised male should eat of the Pesach offering
#18 to sanctify the firstborn in the land of Israel
#19 not to eat any hametz during Pesach
#20 that no hametz should be seen with us during Pesach
#21 to recount the story of our escape from Mitzrayim
#22 to redeem a first-born donkey
#23 to break the neck of an unredeemed first-born donkey

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