Moses and Aaron are instructed regarding the diagnosis of tzaraat, which is usually translated as leprosy. It is an ailment, which has the ability of affecting human skin, clothing. If infected, the human being or garment is declared ritually impure. Rashes, patches and discolorations of the affected individual or object are examined by a priest who determines the existence of the affliction.
God instructs Moshe in the purification process for a leper who has been declared clean. Two clean birds are to be brought to the priest. One is sacrificed, and the other bird is set free. After a week, the person to be purified shave all of their hair and immerse in water. They then bring a guilt offering and a sin offering.
Rashi offers a rationale for the two birds. Since tzaraat comes in retribution for lashon hara, which is, in effect, babbling words, the Torah requires for the metzora’s purification birds which babble and twitter continually. But why two birds? Wouldn’t one have served the purpose? And why was one bird slaughtered and the other kept alive to be sent away “towards the fields”? The power of speech is a double-edged sword.
When used properly it is a beneficial instrument for studying, teaching and creating community and meaning. Used improperly, in the form of slander and lying, speech can be deadly. Our Sages explain that the sacrifices are designed to make the donor mindful of the fact that the sacrificed animal is taking his place, in reality he deserved to suffer the fate of the sacrifice. Had there been only the slaughtered bird, the metzora would then have inferred that all forms of speech are evil and deadly. He may not have uttered another word for the rest of his life. The live bird that is sent away toward the fields shows him that the power of speech can be a source of life and strength. Indeed, the pair of birds epitomizes the saying that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Mishlei 18:21). (Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch)
Parashat Shemini begins on the last day of the ordination ceremony of Aaron and his sons as priests. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer an alien fire to God . A fire comes from God, and both sons die immediately. Moses tells Aaron that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu demonstrate the responsibility of priests to do only what God has specifically commanded them. Moses calls on Aaron’s nephews to remove the bodies, and cautions relatives and the rest of the congregation not to mourn the deaths.
God commands Aaron and his sons not to drink intoxicants when they enter the Tent of Meeting, for them to be able to carry out their duties. God speaks to Moses and Aaron regarding the laws of kashrut. They are told that the Israelites are permitted to eat any mammal which has both a split hooves and chews its cud. The Israelites are permitted to eat any fish which has both fins and scales. A list of forbidden birds is given. Four-legged insects are forbidden unless they have a pair of jointed legs with which they can leap. The parasha ends with an affirmation of the special relationship between God and the people of Israel.
Some commentators explain that out of their joy of serving God, Nadav and Avihu brought an additional sacrifice. If this were so, death seems an extreme, and even unjust, punishment. Hertz explains that they were punished according to their elevated status and that this was a warning to future priestly generations not to innovate their own sacrifices.
The Background to the Passover Holiday from Teaching Jewish Holidays:
Leviticus 23:5-8 contains the biblical injunctions to celebrate the festival of Pesach: “in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, as twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the month is the Lord’s Feast of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened for seven days. The first day shall be for you a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to Adonai. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.”
Efforts to probe the origins of the Jewish holidays are in no way intended to denigrate the importance or the meaning of the festivals. Rather, they help to demonstrate the genius of the Jewish people who drew from their environment, transforming what might have begun as a pagan idea or practice into something with universal and timeless significance.
According to such scholars as Hayyim Schauss and Theodor Gaster, the modern festival of Pesach is a combination of a shepherd’s festival and an agricultural festival. Leviticus 23 reinforces this idea.
It is possible that a Pesach festival had its earliest stirrings among semi-nomads who thousands of years ago wandered the desert and the semi-arid environs around Palestine. Nisan was the month when sheep most often gave birth. These nomads came to observe a festival at the time of the full moon. Just before nightfall, a sheep or goat was sacrificed. The animal was then roasted, and the family ate a hasty meal so that all of the animal would be eaten before daybreak. No bones of this sacrificial animal could be broken. Tent posts were daubed with the blood of the slain animal as an antidote to plagues, misfortune, and illness.
Perhaps the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a six or seven day festival marking the beginning of the spring harvest and the offering of the first sheaf of the newly cut barley to the priest as a sacrifice to God. The elimination of chametz may have originally been precautionary so as not to infect the new incoming crop. Or, it may have been a way of propitiating the priests and God so as to assume health and bounty.
As Judaism moved away from being agriculturally based, new interpretations and new customs were added to the Pesach ritual so that Jews living all over the world and in all ages could meaningfully celebrate Pesach. The prototype Haggadah finds its way into the Mishnah as Tractate Pesachim. By the end of the Talmudic period, its form and much of its content were as they are today. It must have been widely accepted, because the Haggadah was included in the very first prayer book of Rav Amram in the eighth century, as well as in the prayer book of Saadia Gaon in Babylonia (tenth century). Somewhere around the twelfth century, it began to be copied as a separate book. It attracted many commentaries, and became the favorite subject of Jewish artists who found the subject liberating.
Parashat Tzav begins by repeating the procedure for the sacrifices discussed in last week’s Parasha. This time the Torah directs its words to Aaron and his sons, giving details regarding the portions of the sacrifices they receive.
God commands Moses to prepare Aaron, his sons, and the Tabernacle for the priesthood. This includes washing Aaron and his sons, dressing them in their ritual garments, and anointing both Aaron and the Tabernacle with oil. Moses explains that this ceremony will last seven days, and all that has been done and sacrificed that day has to be repeated on each of the following days.
The book Teaching Torah gives a beautiful insight into the role of the priests and the priestly offering. The priests, especially the High Priest, were role models for the Israelites. The High Priest had to be sinless in order to carry out his duties. But, since no individual is sinless, the High Priest brought a daily sacrifice atoning for any sins he may have committed.
So what do we learn from this? If the High Priest can bring a sacrifice, admitting that he needed to repent for any sins and asking for forgiveness, his action may motivate others to do so as well. The High Priest brought and offered his sacrifices publicly, without feeling ashamed. This was a message to the Israelites that they also should bringing sacrifices of atonement and not feel ashamed for their need for repentance.
Judaism is not a religion which demands perfection. Its creators knew that human beings were not perfect people and could never be perfect people. Therefore, it sets up rituals and prayers that respond to the realistic nature, both positive and negative, of daily human life.
Judaism is a religion that demands continuous growth and development of the human being. The observances of Mitzvot are the vehicle through which we as Jews develop and grow intellectually, spiritually, and ritually. Whether it is lighting Shabbat candles, giving Tzedakah, or observing Kashrut, all are important and all should be viewed as the stepping stone to the next level of knowledge and observance.
With this week’s Torah portion, we begin reading the book of Leviticus. Parashat VaYikra opens with God instructing Moses to describe the five types of sacrifices to the Israelites. They were: a burnt offering (olah); the meal offering (minchah); the sacrifice of wellbeing (zevach shelamim); the sin offering (chatat); and the guilt offering (asham).
While the first three types of sacrifices were voluntary and not brought for atonement, the last two sacrifices, the chatat and the asham were both obligatory for guilty parties. The offering to be brought was determined by the economic status of the person who committed the transgression. The penalty for robbery was also to restore the stolen item, plus an additional one-fifth of its value.
The bringing of sacrifices did not, in and of itself, appease God for one’s wrongdoing; rather it served merely as a symbol and expression of one’s desire to repent and, in that, to change one’s behavior. The essential element in repentance is the attitude of the individual. With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrifices were discontinued. The Sages then prescribed other practices to substitute for the sacrifices. The most important were prayer, Torah study, and tzedakah. Just as prayer, study, and tzedakah require whole-hearted commitment and discipline, so repentance requires a whole-hearted commitment to change one’s ways.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses assembles the Israelites and reminds them of the commandment to observe Shabbat as a day of rest. He also instructs them not to kindle light on Shabbat. Moses then reviews God’s instructions concerning the building of the Tabernacle and calls upon the people to bring gifts to be used in its construction. When Moses sees that the work is complete, he blesses the people of Israel. Then God tells Moses to erect the Tabernacle on the first day of the first month and to place in it all of its specially crafted furnishings. Moses then anoints Aaron and his four sons to be priests as God commanded him.
When Moses has finished the work, the cloud of God covers the Tabernacle and the presence of God fills it. When the cloud is lifted from the Tabernacle, it is a signal to the Israelites to break camp and begin travel. Throughout the journeys of the Israelites, a cloud of the Lord is present by day and a fire by night.
The placement of the prohibition of work on Shabbat immediately before the description of the building of the Tabernacle led the Rabbis to understand “work” – “milacha” to mean any activity that was needed for the construction of the Tabernacle. The Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) lists thirty-nine main categories of work – “avot” and there are many other kinds of work which are outgrowths of these main thirty-nine that are also forbidden. These latter are called toledot – offspring. For example: sowing is in the avot category, therefore, watering plants is considered in the toledot class.
Classical Judaism teaches not only belief in a supernatural being, but also in a belief that that being takes an interest in the affairs of the world. The God of Israel redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, revealed Godself on Mount Sinai, performed miracles for them and established a covenant with them. According to the Torah, God is interested and is involved in the affairs of humankind. Does this involvement extend to individuals or to just to a collective people? Is there a correlation between God providence and our behavior? If there is a correlation, what is the nature of that correlation?
Many Biblical texts portray a correlation between the Israelites following the Torah and its commandments and God’s involvement in their lives. If the Israelites follow the Torah and the commandments, then all will go well. If not, they will be punished. There are then other texts which are baffled by what appears in this world to be grave injustice. People who behave inappropriately and are violent, who have no interest in God or in following God’s commandments, seem to prosper. In other words, there seems to be an inconsistency between the idea of if you follow God’s word then good will follow and if you do not, then punishment will follow.
Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed states: “Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them… the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.”
Maimonides believes that everything that happens to us is decided by and is the workings of God. Sometimes the why and how we get rewarded and punished is beyond our understanding. This answer works for some and not others, which is true with many concepts in Judaism. I am not sure if the important question is why do bad things happen or who is responsible for them, but rather, how do we respond to the good and bad things that happen. One cannot know for certain why something good or bad happened to them, nor can they always be in control of these happenings, but we can have more input into how we respond to them.
In this portion, Moses is further told to instruct the Israelites to bring olive oil for lighting the lamps of the Tabernacle. The lamps, which are to be the responsibility of the priests (Aaron and his sons), are to burn from evening to morning for all time. Moses is told to ordain Aaron and his sons as priests.
Tetzaveh begins with the commandment to the Israelites to kindle the Tabernacle lights regularly. The Hebrew phrase ner tamid used in this instruction has been transposed over time to refer not to an act to be performed perpetually, but to an object to be perpetually present. Thus, the eternal light in our synagogues is there to maintain some sense of the original command found here regarding the light in the Tabernacle. This command was later observed in the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
In this Torah portion, God instructs Moses to accept gifts from the Israelites, which are to be used in constructing the tabernacle. Acceptable gifts include precious metals and stones, tanned skins, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and linen, and special oils and spices.
God tells Moses the blueprints according to which the Tabernacle and its contents are to be built. The first object to be constructed is the Ark, which should be built of acacia wood, overlaid both inside and out with gold. The tablets of the Law (which God will give Moses) are to be kept in the Ark. Two gold cherubim (winged angelic beings described in biblical tradition as attending on God)are to be placed facing each other over the cover of the Ark. The Ark is to be housed in the innermost chamber of the Tabernacle, called the Holy of Holies.
There is a prohibition to remove the poles of the Ark. The commentator Kli Yakar regards the permanent attachment of the poles to the Ark as symbolic of the unbreakable links between Israel and Torah. Rabbi Hirsch regards the prohibition to remove the poles as symbolic of the mobility of the Torah. He states: “The poles of the Ark symbolize, the mission of the Ark and what it housed – to be carried beyond its place to wherever circumstances demanded.” The commandment: “the poles shall not be removed” embodied the eternal message that the Torah is not restricted to the particular country where the Temple is situated.
The combination of the Kli Yakar’s idea that there must be a eternal connection between the people of Israel and Torah, and Rabbi Hirsch’s idea that the Torah is independent of place is only one more vehicle for reinforcing the importance of, and ability to make Torah a daily part of our lives.
This week’s parasha opens with the people of Israel gathered around Mount Sinai. Moses presents a large number of God’s rules to them; hence the name of this parasha – mishpatim (rules). The slavery of the Israelites in Egypt is recalled by Moses to remind the people not to treat strangers, widows and orphans unfairly. Moses repeats all of the rules to the people and then writes them down. Offerings are made to seal the covenant with God and the people accept the law saying, “All the things God has commanded we will do.”
When the Israelites are gathered around the mountain God begin by telling Moses: “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them”. What do the words “that you shall place before them” mean? Rashi states that Moses was commanded to teach not only the rules, but their underlying principles and reasoning, so that the people would understand them fully and be able to apply them properly. The rules must be “placed before them”, in their fullness, like a table that is set and ready for a meal.
From this we learn how we are obligated to teach others. It is not sufficient to merely repeat a lesson two or three times. Rather, a teacher must relate the ideas to the student with their complete explanation, so that a student will not only know the information, but that they will take it to heart as well.