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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Tetzave 5779

This week we read Parashat Tetzave. It begins with God ordering Moses to light and take care of the Menorah, the seven-armed candelabrum that was located in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. God says,

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually (Exodus 27:20).

The sages noticed that the beginning of this verse could have been written as, “command the Children of Israel,” without having to specify that “you shall command the Children of Israel.” This “you” address seems to be superfluous; it is clear that the person who is being addressed with these words (Moses) is the one who has to command the Children of Israel about the lighting of the Menorah. Why, then, insist on explicitly addressing the verse to this person?

The rabbis learned a beautiful lesson from the redundancy of the word “you” in our verse. The lesson is that if you are required to command others, you first need to evaluate and correct yourself; first command “you,” then you can command others!

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Parashat T’rumah 5779

This week’s parashah, parashat T’rumah, deals with the instructions for the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and for the making of all the sacred elements and furniture necessary for the rituals performed in the Mishkan.

One piece of the sacred furniture was the Menorah (a lampstand with seven branches), which is one of the most ancient Jewish symbols.

There is an interesting situation with the Menorah and Moses that I would like to focus on in these Torah Thoughts.

It is written in Midrash Tanhuma:  Three things Moses found difficult and the Holy One, blessed be He, showed them to him with a finger and these are them: The making of the menorah, the moon, and creeping things.

In the making of the menorah, how [was it]? When Moses ascended [Sinai], the Holy One, blessed be He, was showing him on the mountain how he would make the tabernacle. When He showed him the making of the menorah, Moses found it difficult. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “See, I am making it before you.” What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He showed him white fire, red fire, black fire, and green fire. Then from them He made the menorah, its bowls, its knobs, its blossoms, and the six branches. Then He said to him (Numb. 8:4), “This is the making of the menorah.” This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed him with a finger. But nevertheless, [Moses] found it difficult. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He engraved it on the palm of Moses’ hand. He said to him, “Go down and make it just as I have engraved it on your hand.” Thus it is stated (Exod. 25:40), “Observe and make them [by means of] their pattern.” Even so, he found it difficult and said (Exod. 25:31), “with difficulty will the menorah be made,” meaning to say, how difficult it was to make. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Cast the gold into the fire, and it will be made automatically.” So it is stated, “with difficulty will the menorah be made.” This teaches that Moses had difficulty with the menorah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, showed it to him with a finger, as stated (Numb. 8:4). (Midrash Tanhuma Shemini, Siman 11)

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Mishpatim 5779

Parashat Mishpatim interrupts the story of the Exodus from Egypt to introduce a long list of laws. The laws that come first deal with civil and criminal matters, considered by the sages as mitzvot sichliot, or common-sense/intellectual laws. They are called that because, according to the sages, these kinds of Torah laws could have been derived by intellectual and logical thinking, even if the Torah had not included them.   

The first verse of the parasha introduces these laws. It says, “And these are the rules that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). This verse could have started by saying “These are the rules,” but instead it begins by saying “And these are the rules.” Rashi reminds us that every time the Torah says “And these” it means that the following should be considered an addition to what was said before. Right before our verse we find the Ten Commandments, so Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that, just as the Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai, so the laws of Parashat Mishpatim were also given at Sinai.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (Poland, 1799- 1866), the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty), asked the following question, it is a known fact that all the Torah laws were given at Sinai, so why then did the Midrash sages feel the need to explain that the laws of Parashat Mishpatim also were given at Sinai? The answer is that, although these laws are common-sense/intellectual laws and hence could have been derived by intellectual and logical work, their strength and power lies in the fact that they were given by God at Mount Sinai.

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Parashat Yitro 5779

This week’s parashah, Yitro, begins by telling us that Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, heard about all that God had done for Moses and his people—how God had freed them form Egypt and brought them to the desert. And then, it is written that Jethro brought Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and Moses’ two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to Moses in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God (Sh’mot 18:1-5).

These lines show us that Moses’ wife and children were not living with him, but with Jethro. Why did they live with Jethro and why is Jethro now bringing them to Moses?

Last time that the Torah had told us about Moses’ family was when Moses was in Midian and God asked him to return to Egypt. There it is written: “So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt” (Sh’mot 4: 20). So, Moses’ family went with him to Egypt. When did they return to Midian and why did they do so?

There is a Midrash that imagines that after Moses received the divine call to redeem Israel from slavery, he went to Egypt with his family. When he met Aaron on the way, Moses introduced his wife and sons. Aaron answered, “We are worrying about those already there and now you bring upon us these new comers!” At that moment, Moses asked Zipporah to return to her father’s house (M’chilta, Amalek 3).

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Beshalach 5779

This week we read Parashat Beshalach, which describes de moment when the Children of Israel left Egypt. After that moment the Torah says,

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt (Exodus 13:17).

This verse was understood in different ways. Many understood this verse as saying that God did not want the people of Israel to meet with the Philistines too fast. God feared the people of Israel would be frightened by the possibility of war against the Philistines, and thus they might want to return to Egypt.

In addition to this explanation, others understood this verse as saying that God did not want to make it too easy for the Israelites by leading them on the shortest way. Therefore, God chose a longer way for the Israelites.

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Parashat Bo 5779: On Generalizing Social Groups

In parashat Bo, we learn of the last plagues that God cast on the Egyptians in order to attain the liberation of the Hebrew people.  It was especially the final plague, death of the first-born, that convinced Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to leave the land of Egypt.

At the most anticipated time, the Torah tells us that the people, following Moses’ orders, “borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold. The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.” (Sh’mot 12:35-36).

I would like to stop and analyze this verse which has raised several questions as to its meaning.  These people were slaves for hundreds of years; they suffered, they were abused, and now, when they are able to leave that hellish life, they dare to ask their masters for silver and gold!  It does not sound like the request of a slave.  However, we can argue that it was Moses, supported by God, who led them to make this request.  Moses, a free-thinking man, knew that a people without resources would be doomed to failure.  Freedom would be of no use without the means to survive and live well.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vaera 5779

This week we read Parashat Vaera. We are told about the first seven plagues that hit Egypt. As you know, the story of the ten plagues presents certain ethical challenges that are important to address. One of the criticisms that you may hear about the biblical ten plagues’ story is that they sound like God is taking revenge over the Egyptians. I would like to explain why this is not correct and also take the advantage of this opportunity to describe a very important Jewish ethical principle.
If you read the Torah text about the plagues, you will notice that there is no reference to any revenge. The goals of bringing the plagues were to convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians that the Hebrew people had to be liberated, and eventually to punish Pharaoh for his crimes against the Hebrew people. The main goal is to free the people of Israel. And that main goal had to be achieved in a way that the Egyptians would understand that the liberation of the Hebrew people was not Pharaoh’s decree, but the willing of God. As it is written in the Torah,
“And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst” (Exodus 7:5).

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Parashat Shemot 5779-“Honoring our beloved ones through their names”

This week we are starting to read the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot. Parashat Shemot starts with these words: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household” (Shemot 1:1). After this, the Torah lists the names of the sons of Jacob.
Many commentators wonder why the book of Shemot starts listing these names considering that the same names were mentioned in the book of Bereshit in chapter 46: “These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt…” (Bereshit 46:8-27).
What is the purpose of listing their names again?
There is an explanation in a Midrash from Shemot Rabbah:
“R. Huna says in the name of Bar Kaparah, for four things the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt, one was for not changing their names (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, Vayikra Rabba 32).” (Shemot Rabbah 1:28)

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