Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Flipped Classroom: Sefer Ezra Chapters 1-3

This is cross-posted on my TechRav blog.

I am planning to try the Flipped Classroom model this year in my Nach class. We are learning about Shivat Zion through Sefer Ezra/ Nechemiah, Chagai, Zechariah, and (maybe) Malachi.

Here are my first 5 videos on Ezra Chapters 1-3 with HW assignments as a Google Form for each of them. I welcome your constructive feedback.

1. Ezra Chapter 1, Verses 1-6

2. Ezra Chapter 1, Verses 7-11

3. Ezra Chapter 2

4. Ezra Chapter 3, Verses 1-7

5. Ezra Chapter 3 Verses, 8-13

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pesach and the Counting of the Omer

Pesach, the holiday of our freedom, as we know should be celebrated as our most joyous festival. Yet on the second day of Pesach we start counting the Omer. The joy is no longer unlimited. It becomes subdued. What does counting represent if not the lack of something in the present that is anticipated in the future? Furthermore, Chazal have imbued the time of the Omer with a quasi mourning characteristic. The Baal Hamaor in fact claims that the reason that we do not make a sheheheyanu on Sefiras Haomer is because the counting is a mournful one.

The Rav asks: why did the Torah mix with the joy of Pesach the sadness of the Sefirah period? Even if one would say that this mourning is on a rabbinic level, obviously our rabbis were connecting this mourning to the Omer since the Omer lends itself to this.

Rabbi Soloveitchik answers this through an analysis of the pesukim that describe the connection between Pesach and the Omer in Sefer Vayikra. It says:

ויקרא פרק כג
ד אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי יְקֹוָק מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם בְּמוֹעֲדָם:
ה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לַחֹדֶשׁ בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם פֶּסַח לַיקֹוָק:
ו וּבַחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה חַג הַמַּצּוֹת לַיקֹוָק שִׁבְעַת יָמִים מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ:
ז בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ:
ח וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיקֹוָק שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ: פ
ט וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:
י דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת קְצִירָהּ וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם אֶל הַכֹּהֵן:
יא וְהֵנִיף אֶת הָעֹמֶר לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק לִרְצֹנְכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת יְנִיפֶנּוּ הַכֹּהֵן:
טו וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה:
טז עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַיקֹוָק:

The Rav notes that despite the fact that the Omer is brought on the second day of Pesach, Pesach and the Omer are presenting separately in the verses. Not only that but the word used by the Karban Omer and the counting of the Omer is מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת it should begin on the day after Shabbos. Some of you might know that this was the source for the famous argument between the Perushim and Boethusians. The Boethusians read מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת literally as the day after Shabbos and always started the Sefiras HaOmer on the day after Shabbos following Pesach so that Shavuos was always a Sunday. The Perushim who represent rabbinic Judaism hold that here Shabbos means a day we do not work, namely the first day of the Yom Tov of Pesach and not the day of Shabbos so Shavuos can fall out on any day of the week. This was such a strong argument that on the day that the Perushim finally defeated the Boethusians they made a holiday. Why is it that the Torah chose to call the start of the Omer as מָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת instead of directly connecting it to Pesach?

The Rav answers that this is because the Pesach and the Omer represent two opposite extremes. Pesach represents the supernatural, Hashem's open revelation and intercession into Jewish history with the Yetzias Mitzrayim. This is what we celebrate on the seder night. But as we know, Hashem cannot always be so openly involved in history. In order for humanity to be endowed with free will and the ability to make independent choices, Hashem must operate behind the veil of a natural world. This is represented by the Omer. When Benay Yisrael arrive in Israel, they will plow and plant the soil and then grow their produce through natural means. After harvesting their first crops, they are commanded to bring the Karban Omer the barley from this natural harvest. This is the reason why the Pesach and Omer are presented separately despite the fact that they coincide on the calendar. The Pesach celebrates the God of revelation while the Omer commemorates the God of natural events. It is also for this reason that the Omer is brought מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת. Shabbos represents the natural order of creation. In six days, Hashem created the world and on the seventh he rested. It is after Shabbos that we bring the Omer.

The Omer then has a certain sadness to it. After experiencing the great joy and revelation of the Pesach holiday. We have to go back to a normal existence. It is back to work and back to school.

The challenge of the beginning of the Omer is to bring the Karban Omer, to recognize that Hashem is just as involved in the natural as he is in the supernatural, only he is hidden from view. Hashem is always there. Only he hides behind the veil of nature and history. For brief fleeting moments he shows himself in all of his glory like at the splitting of the Yam Suf. We remember this and use these moments of inspiration to see Hashem throughout the rest of the year in natural events. It is this that we commemorate through the counting of the Omer.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bones of Joseph and the Exodus

In the description of the Exodus of Benay Yisrael from Egypt, the Torah takes a detour to describe Moshe's involvement in the bones of Yosef.

שמות פרק יג
יט וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף עִמּוֹ כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם:

The Gemara in Sota says that this was a tremendous merit for Moshe:

ת"ר: בא וראה כמה חביבות מצות על משה רבינו, שכל ישראל כולן נתעסקו בביזה והוא נתעסק במצות, שנאמר: +משלי י+ חכם לב יקח מצות וגו'. .

While the rest of Benay Yisrael was collecting gold and silver from the Egyptians, Moshe was keeping a promise made to our father Yosef Hatzaddik many centuries ago.
The Rav points out that this was at great risk to the entire plan of Benay Yisrael since they had told Pharaoh that they were only leaving for a 3 day journey into the desert. Even the collection of gold and silver from the Egyptians was done under the premise that they were "borrowing" the precious metals to use in their three day celebration and then they would return it. Rabbi Soloveitchik asks why did Moshe Rabbenu himself have to be involved in Yosef's bones and why he risk his whole plan by taking Yosef's bones which is clearly a statement that they were planning a permanent Exodus from Egypt?
The Medrash Tanhuma begins to answer this question explaining that it was because of Yosef's bones that the Yam Suf split as we read in Hallel הים ראה וינוס, the sea saw and fled. What did the sea see that caused it to flee and split? She saw the bones of Yosef Hatzadik who also fled from the wife of Potiphar who was trying to seduce him as it says וינס ויצא החוצה.
This Medrash is based on another Gemara in Sota:

בראשית לט: ותתפשהו בבגדו לאמר וגו' - באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו ונראתה לו בחלון, אמר לו: יוסף, עתידין אחיך שיכתבו על אבני אפוד ואתה ביניהם, רצונך שימחה שמך מביניהם?

What led Yosef, a teenage boy living alone in a strange land to such an act of heroism against the constant advances of this beautiful woman? He saw the image of his father in the window. What was his father saying? In the future, the stones of the tribes will be inscribed on the Kohen Gadol's breast plate. Do you want to be counted with the tribes?
Yosef Hatzaddik in the moment of his greatest trial used two images to triumph over his Yetzer Hara, his father representing his glorious past and traditions, and the stones on the breast plate, representing his hopes and aspirations of an even greater future as a part of Kelal Yisrael. How could he sacrifice his role in this great chain of Jewish history for the pleasures of a fleeting moment?
This was the reason why Moshe Rabbenu risked all to take the bones of Yosef with him when he left Mitzrayim. He knew that at the Yam Suf, the angels will turn to Hashem and ask הללו עובדי עבודה זרה, והללו עובדי עבודה זרה? Why save the Jews and drown the Egytians? These worship idols and these worship idols. And Hashem will see the bones of Yosef and split the sea. Yosef used the images of the past and future to conquer the desires of the present. It was the merit of Yosef who brought us into Egypt and it was also his merit that brought us out on dry land through the waters of the raging sea.
Throughout the travels of Benay Yisrael in the desert 2 Arons led the way, the Ark of the Covenant and the ark of the bones of Yosef and it was in both of these merits that Benay Yisrael was victorious in all of its battles as the Yalkut Shimoni says:

שהיה ארונו של יוסף מהלך עם ארון חי העולם והיו או"ה א"ל מה טיבן של שני ארונות הללו והן אומרים זה ארונו של מת וזה ארונו של חי העולמים והיו אומרים להן אומות העולם מה טיבו של מת מהלך עם ארון חי עולמים, והן אומרים המונח בארון זה קיים מה שכתוב בזה,

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Hero of the Pesach Seder

Read the classic of biography of Rabbi Akiva here.

On Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach, we read from Shir Hashirim, a metaphor for Hashem’s relationship with Benay Yisrael. The Mishna in Yadaim records a Machlokes about whether Shir Hashirim should be included in the biblical canon. After a heated discussion, it is Rabbi Akiva who comes to the rescue and states

אמר רבי עקיבה, חס ושלום: לא נחלק אדם מישראל בשיר השירים שלא תטמא את הידיים, שאין העולם כולו כדאי ביום שניתנה בו שיר השירים לישראל--שכל הכתובים קודש, ושיר השירים קודש קודשים; ואם נחלקו, לא נחלקו אלא על קוהלת.

I will discuss one aspect of Shir Hashirim which thanks to Rabbi Akiva is the most precious of our 24 Sefrei Tanach this afternoon. It is my belief that Rabbi Akiva is not only the hero of Shir Hashirim but of the entire Chag of Pesach. Where does Rabbi Akiva appear in Pesach? He is found in the seder.

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻעַ וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבְּי עֲקִיבָא וְרַבִּי טַרְפוֹן שֶהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי בְרַק, וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִים בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם כָּל אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ תַלְמִידֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ לָהֶם: רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, הִגִּיעַ זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית.

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua were both teachers of Rabbi Akiva and yet they went to Rabbi Akiva’s seder in his hometown of Benei Berak to join him. Why did these rabbis come to Rabbi Akiva’s seder?

I believe that the answer can be found by analyzing Rabbi Akiva’s contribution to a different part of the seder. The Mishna in Pesachim 116b, records argument between Rabbi Akiva and Rav Tarfon about the Beracha recited at the end of the Magid service in the Hagadah.

ר"ט אומר אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותינו ממצרים ולא היה חותם רבי עקיבא אומר כן ה' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך ונאכל שם <מן הפסחים ומן הזבחים> [מן הזבחים ומן הפסחים] כו' עד בא"י גאל ישראל

We follow Rabbi Akiva. Rav Tarfon stops with the past. He recited blessed are you Hashem who redeemed us and redeemed our forefathers from Egypt. Rav Akiva says that the past is not enough. You have to look to the future.

כן ה' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך

Hashem will give us redemptions in the future as well. Rabbi Akiba is living in a post Hurban world where the world is shattered and he is saying Davka now we can’t just look to the past but we have to look to a better future. He says that we have to look to better days. This is the trademark of Rabbi Akiba. He has the vision to see beyond the bleakness of the present to a glorious future.

The Gemara Makkos 24b records 2 stories about Rabbi Akiba that illustrate his eternal optimism. Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva were once walking on the road at Puteoli in Italy. They could hear the noise of the crowds in the coliseum in Rome, one hundred and twenty mil away. Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, R. Yehoshua burst into weeping, but R. Akiva continued to be cheerful. They asked him: Akiva, why are you so cheerful? He replied: Why are you weeping? They: These heathen, who bow down to images and burn incense to idols, live in safety and tranquility, whereas we--whose Temple, the "footstool" of our God, is burned down by fire--are we not to weep? He replied: For that very reason, I am cheerful. If they who offend Him fare thus, how much better by far will fare those who please Him!

Another time, the same sages were coming up to Jerusalem together, and when they reached Mount Scopus they rent their garments. When they got to the Temple Mount and saw a jackal emerging from the Holy of Holies, they began to weep, but R. Akiva laughed. Why, they asked him, are you laughing? He replied: Why are you weeping? They: The place of which Scripture says, "The common man that draws near shall be put to death" (Num. 1:51), is now become the haunt of jackals. Should we not weep? He said to them: For that very reason, I am laughing. For it is written, "And I call reliable witnesses, Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah" (Isa. 8:2). Now what connection is there between Uriah and Zechariah? Did not Uriah live during First Temple, while Zechariah [lived and prophesied] during the Second Temple? Still, Scripture links the [later] prophecy of Zechariah with the [earlier] prophecy of Uriah. In the [earlier] prophecy, [in the days] of Uriah, it is written,

יב לָכֵן, בִּגְלַלְכֶם, צִיּוֹן, שָׂדֶה תֵחָרֵשׁ; וִירוּשָׁלִַם עִיִּין תִּהְיֶה, וְהַר הַבַּיִת לְבָמוֹת יָעַר.

"Because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods" (Mic. 3:12), and in Zechariah, it is written,

ד כֹּה אָמַר, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת, בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם; וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ, מֵרֹב יָמִים. ה וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ, יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת, מְשַׂחֲקִים, בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ.

"Thus saith the Lord of hosts: There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem" (Zech. 8:4). So long as Uriah's [dire] prophecy had not yet had its fulfillment, I feared that Zechariah's prophecy would not be fulfilled; now that Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zechariah's prophecy also is to be fulfilled. They said to him: Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!

This quality is commemorated through the period of Sefiras Haomer that follows Pesach. We all know the custom to mourn during this time for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that died. But do you know what Rabbi Akiva did after this dire tragedy when he lost his entire glorious Yeshiva in the Galilee? The Gemara in Yevamot 62b records that he traveled south and found five remaining students to teach. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Simeon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. We mourn because of the students that died. Rabbi Akiva continued to teach and it was these five new students who formed the backbone of the Mishna. Without Rabbi Akiva’s optimism and heroism, the Oral Law and all of Halachic Judaism would have died in those bleak days. Because Rabbi Akiva continued to spread Torah, the Torah survived and thrives to this day.

It was for this reason that the 4 rabbis all gathered in Benay Berak to spend the seder with Rabbi Akiva. Where else to see the Geulah of the future at the seder after the destruction of the temple than in Rabbi Akiba’s hometown. You need the optimism of Rabbi Akiba who could take the most difficult situations and see the bright future that awaits.

In the book "Under Strange Skies" Harry Simonhoff, describes his own experience with Rabbi Akiva when he traveled to England visit the ruins of the walls built by the Roman emperor Hadrian who arranged to have Rabbi Akiva killed. Before visiting the walls he had to daven Mincha since he had yarzheit that day. He asked the populace and they led him to the nearest minyan in the great Gateshead Yeshiva. Then he visited the Roman wall of Hadrian. He describes his experience:
"In this English Volozhin, slight young men sit on hard benches, swaying over tomes of the Talmud, the Midrash, the Tosafists. Here is a genuine old-world yeshiva taking root in English soil. I left the school in a taxi - The taxi stopped and the driver said, "Sir, this is the Roman Wall". I got out to inspect the ruins of the wall which Hadrian built between Newcastle and Carlisle. It suddenly occurred to me that this was the Hadrian who crushed Bar Kochba and had Akiba flayed alive for teaching Judaism, which was forbidden by imperial decree. The Romans are gone forever. Hadrian's proud wall is a series of broken mounds. But nearby, the English yeshiva bochurim [students] are keeping alive the ethos of Gamliel and Akiba".
It is this optimism of Rabbi Akiva that makes him the hero of my Pesach seder. The Romans who destroyed our temple and murdered Rabbi Akiva and his many students are long forgotten. Rabbi Akiva, his teachers, and disciples survive. We are living proof of the power of Rabbi Akiva’s optimism.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Don't Drink and Serve

After the 7 days of the Chanukas Hamishkan, the Mishkan is finally fully operational. Aharon takes over the Avodah from Moshe Rabbenu. After bringing his first Karbanos, Aharon Hacohen blesses the people and the glory of Hashem descends on the nation. As promised in Parshas Terumah, the Jewish people built for Hashem a sanctuary and Hashem dwells with them. A fire descends from Hashem and consumes the Olah and fats. The people fall on their faces in awe. Nadav and Avihu, Aharon's elder sons, in a state of religious ecstasy take fire pans, put in them fire and incense, and bring them before G-d, a strange fire that had not been commanded to them. A fire comes out from Hashem, consuming them as they die before Hashem. What went wrong?

Rashi explains:
רש"י ויקרא פרק י
(ב) ותצא אש - רבי אליעזר אומר לא מתו בני אהרן אלא על ידי שהורו הלכה בפני משה רבן. רבי ישמעאל אומר שתויי יין נכנסו למקדש, תדע שאחר מיתתן הזהיר הנותרים שלא יכנסו שתויי יין למקדש. משל למלך, שהיה לו בן בית וכו', כדאיתא בויקרא רבה:
Verse 2: A fire came forth.
Rabbi Eliezer says: The sons of Aharon died only because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of their master Moshe.33 Rabbi Yishmo'el says: Intoxicated with wine they entered the Sanctuary.34 You should know [that this is true], for after their death He warned the survivors not to enter the Sanctuary [while] intoxicated with wine. [This] may be compared to a king who had a [faithful] member of his household, etc. as it is [explained] in Vayikro Rabbo.35

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks, why does Rashi provide these two reasons for the death of Nadav and Avihu and ignore the more simple pshat that they died because they brought an אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם, a foreign fire that God had not commanded.  He explains that in reality Nadav and Avihu died Midah Keneged Midah. They brought an אֵשׁ זָרָה, a foreign fire, and  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק , a fire came from before God and consumed them and they died before God. However, Rashi wants to know how could a fire from Hashem be a vehicle of punishment if just 2 verses earlier it represented the apex of divine reward when it says  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וַתֹּאכַל עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֶת הָעֹלָה וְאֶת הַחֲלָבִים וַיַּרְא כָּל הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם: , a fuire came from before God and consumed the altar, the Olah, and the fats, and the nation saw and they sang and they fell on their faces. Therefore Rashi says that Nadav and Avihu did not die because of the act of Avodah itself which inherently was an act of Kedusha. Rather they died because they did not consult with Moshe Rabbenu.

But how did it enter their hearts to do such a thing? After weeks of Moshe Rabbenu's detailed presentation of every aspect of the Avodah, how could they fail to consult with him prior to offering their own innovation? To answer this, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky explains, is the second peshat in Rashi. The root cause of their arrogance was the wine that they ingested. If one considers, this wine was not yet forbidden. Only after this unfortunate incident, does Hashem command, "No drinking and serving". On such a happy day as the dedication of the Temple it was understandable that Nadav and Avihu wished to celebrate with some wine. Does it not say in Tehillim in Barchei Nafshi that we recite on every Rosh Chodesh: (טו) וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ לְהַצְהִיל פָּנִים מִשָּׁמֶן וְלֶחֶם לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ יִסְעָד:, wine makes the heart happy? But they should have realized that the awe with which one approaches the temple and the happiness one experiences with alcohol do not mix. When one drinks one's inhibitions go down and one often behaves in silly or inappropriate ways as the Gemara says in Eruvin נכנס יין יצא סוד when wine comes in the secrets come out.

But can't wine be a positive thing? I remember in Yeshiva on Purim that some of the Rebbeim would get drunk and the only secrets that would leave their mouths was Torah. So why would wine be condemned in Nadav and Avihu such holy people. The Sfas Emes looks at these verses metaphorically:

שפת אמת ספר ויקרא - פרשת שמיני - שנת [תרמ"ז[
בענין שאמחז"ל על נדב ואביהוא *שתויי* *יין* נכנסו למקדש. גם לפי פשוטו חלילה לומר שהיו מזלזלין ח"ו בעבודה. רק כענין שמצינו אגברי' חמרא לדרדקא כי היכי דלימרו מילי. ואיתא חמרי פקחין כו'. שהיין מעורר הלב כמ"ש ותירוש ינובב בתולות. אך הכהן שהוא שלוחו של מקום לא הי' רשאי להוסיף שום כח והתפעלות מצידו. וזה נקרא אשר לא צוה אותם שהי' צריך להיות כל העבודה רק בשליחות המקום ב"ה. והקב"ה מדקדק עם הצדיקים כחוט השערה:

Wine represents coming to do the Avodah with one's own wisdom and creativity. However, in the service of Hashem one must be totally subservient to God. This was the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Rather than using the Avodah to subjugate their will to the will of the one above, they created their own Avodah.

There is an old Minhag to fast on the Monday, Thursday, and Monday after Rosh Hodesh following Pesach and Sukkos. This is known as Taanis BehaB. I do not advocate this custom for any of you. But what is the idea behind it. That the celebration on Pesach and Sukkos can lead to over exuberance, too much eating and especially too much drinking and for this we need an atonement. This was the sin of Nadav and Avihu. How often do some of us follow this example? How many of us ingest too much drink at Simchas, Kiddushes, and Shalom Zachors? Even if we claim that secrets don't come out, what example does this provide to our children? Let us learn from Nadav and Avihu.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Megillat Esther and its Hidden Message

In honor of Purim, I am posting a PowerPoint presentation that I created based on the shiur by Rav Menachem Leibtag, Megillat Esther and its Hidden Message. This presentation illustrates how the visuals, text, and animations can enhance the understanding of an idea. In the future, I plan to post other PowerPoint and Smart Notebook presentations on Tanach. Purim Sameach!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why we don't eat Chametz on Pesach

Freshly Baked Multi-Grain Loaves by Sifu Renka, November 8, 2008, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

The prohibition against Chametz on Pesach is one of the most unique in the Torah. The Torah in 3 separate places commands us to search out and destroy Seor (yeast) and Chametz, to not find Seor and Chametz and to not see Seor and Chametz in our homes.

We know that this prohibition also includes an Issur against getting hanaah from Chametz and even the smallest amount (a mashehu) of chametz is forbidden. Why is the Torah so much stricter by Chametz than by other Issurim?

In Parshat Vayikra, we find another prohibition by Chametz that applies throughout the year. The Torah tells us in Chapter 2 Verse 11 that we are forbidden to offer Seor as well as Devash (honey) on the altar as a sacrifice. What is the connection between the prohibition against Chametz on the altar and its proscription on Pesach?

In Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim gives an explanation for the prohibition against offering Chametz and Devash on the altar all year round. He says that the worshippers of idols would sacrifice Chametz and Devash on their altars so we reject their idolatrous practices by refraining from these items in our sacrifices. Furthermore, since idolators prohibited salt on any of their sacrifices we put salt on all of our sacrifices. The Rambam says he knows all of this from reading descriptions of the idolatrous practices.

This Rambam is based on a Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi describes Yeravam Ben Navat’s plan to seduce people to worship idols. Yeravam’s slogan was “Come worship idols. Idol worship is easy!!”

Yeravam lists many examples where idol worship is easier than worshipping God. One example he brings is that while the Torah says that you cannot burn Chametz on the altar, idolatry says that you can burn Chametz on the altar. This is based on verses in Amos chapter 4 which clearly state that the Jews under Yeravam burned Chametz on the altar.

Perhaps one could say that the prohibition against Chametz on Pesach is similarly linked to idolatry. What item does the Torah command you to burn and prohibit you from seeing? If you guessed Chamez on Pesach you are wrong. (Sorry)

The correct answer is idols. Idols are also forbidden even in a masheu like Chametz. One must search for idols (in Israel) to destroy them and one cannot derive benefit from idols. In fact, the prohibitions against idols and Chametz on Pesach are almost identical. Why?

We know that one of the main themes of Pesach is rejecting the gods of Egypt in favor of the one and only God. This is the reason we slaughter the Karban Pesach. The lamb was an Egyptian god. By slaughtering it and offering it to Hashem the Jews actively repudiated the gods of Egypt.

One could argue that in Egypt, Chametz was also treated like a god and by refraining from Chametz we are rejecting Egyptian idolatry.

This Zohar illustrates this idea. He says that anyone who eats Chametz on Pesach it is as if he worships idols. The reverse of this is that by refraining from eating Chametz we are rejecting idols. How can we prove this connection?

In Breishit Chapter 39 Verse 6 the Torah says that when Joseph was a slave in Egypt in Potiphar’s house, Potiphar gave Joseph all that was his except for the bread that he (Potiphar) ate. Why did Potiphar deprive Joseph of his bread? Because Joseph was a slave and a foreigner and foreigners could not eat Egyptian bread.

Later in Breishit Chapter 43 Verse 32, this idea is stated in more detail. Joseph, who is now the prince of Egypt, his 11 brothers, and the Egyptians are feasting. Yet each group is eating separately. Why don’t the Egyptians eat with the Jews? Because it is a Toevah for the Egyptians to eat bread with the Jews. The word Toevea indicates a disgusting thing either for God or gods. (See Shemot Chpater 8 Verse 22 and Devarim Chapter 7 Verse 25-26.) It is a disgrace to the Egyptian gods for a foreigner to eat Egyptian bread.

What was so special about Egyptian bread? Encyclopedia Encarta notes the following:
Although people have been making bread for thousands of years, its exact origins are unknown. During the late Stone Age, nomadic tribes probably made a thick gruel from wild grain and baked it into flat cakes on hot stones in their campfires….

Archaeological evidence suggests that yeast-risen wheat breads were developed in Egypt around 4000 years ago. The Egyptians are also believed to be the first to grind wheat flour in a process analogous to modern milling.

Technical advances continued to improve bread-making techniques, among them the use of the yeast-containing residue of the brewing process as a leavening agent. Bread bakers no longer had to rely on wild airborne yeast or sourdough starters, and by the 3rd century BC, yeast was manufactured commercially in Egypt.

The Egyptians invented yeast (Seor in Hebrew) that allows bread to rise. They guarded this secret formula from all foreigners. They considered yeast-risen bread to be a gift from the gods if not a god itself. This might be one reason that we refrain from Seor on Pesach. By destroying all Chametz, we reject the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians. Simultaneously, we eat Matza the same poor man’s bread our forefathers ate as foreigners enslaved in Egypt.

A funerary model of a bakery and brewery in Ancient Egypt, dating the 11th dynasty, circa 2009-1998 B.C. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. Source:

A Sefaria source sheet for this post appears below.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Power of Vav

The Yalkhut Shimoni on Parshas Pekuday describes that when the work of the Mishkan was finally completed, Moshe gathered Benay Yisrael to make an accounting of all the money raised and spent on the Meleches Hamishkan. He opened the books counting all of the credits and debits while the entire Kelal Yisrael surrounded him. He went through the books and 1775 Shekel was not accounted for which at current prices would be $918,893.36. Moshe got very distressed and nervous because he said that now of all of Benay Yisrael would say that Moshe was skimming off the top and pocketing the money myself. Then Hashem showed him the ווים לעמודים the hooks, caps, and inlaid hoops that held together the pillars of the Mishkan. The ווים לעמודים were valued at exactly 1775 Shekel. Moshe at first did not notice them since they are hidden behind the curtains.

What message is the Medrash transmitting? The Power of Vav. The ווים לעמודים are the clasps that hold the Mishkan together. They are named after the letter Vav which means “and” and is often called the וו החיבור, it holds words together. Hashem by showing Moshe the ווים לעמודים was transmitting that the most important aspect of the Mishkan was the “and” the fact that we cannot only work as individuals but as an interconnected whole.

We see that this power of Vav was embedded into the very framework of the creation of the world. Adam and Chavah were created on the sixth day of creation the Gematria of the Vav because it is humanity that joins everything together. Furthermore, after Cain killed Abel, the Torah tells us that Hashem made an אות, a mark of Cain. The Medrash interprets this אות literally as a letter which was taken from Hashems name and placed on Cain’s forehead. The Tikkunei Zohar asks which letter was it? The answer that is given is the letter Vav was written on Cain’s head. Rav Meir Shapiro the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin explains this. Cain asked השומר אחי אנכי “am I my brother’s keeper?”. His ethos was the ethos of the individual. Every person is his own world and only watches out for himself. Hashem attached the Vav from his name to Cain’s to teach him that you are your brother’s keeper. You have to care for others besides yourself. You are “and”. We are all interconnected.

The Rema in Shulchan Aruch Yorah Deah 373 records a Hidur in Kesivas Sefer Torah that every column of the Torah should start with the letter Vav. Why? Because the most important Kelal in Judaism is to create a community that transcends itself and stands for something that is not only us but includes others as well, this is “and”. Sometimes the ווים לעמודים are hidden and taken for granted but we have to highlight them and shine a spotlight on them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Shabbat and the Shul

Twice in the last two parshiot the Torah (Shemot 31:13 and 35:2-3) enjoins us to keep the Shabbat. In each of these instances Rashi notes the proximity between the commandment to keep the Shabbat and to build the Mishkan as a lesson that the building of the Mishkan does not supersede the laws of resting on the Shabbat. In fact, the template for the laws of Shabbat is based on its juxtaposition to the Mishkan. The Gemara in Shabbat (97b) derives the 39 categories of forbidden work on Shabbat from the work that was done in the construction of  the Mishkan. Why is there this apparent fixation in connecting the work of the Mishkan to the Shabbat? Furthermore, why does the Shabbat override the work of the Mishkan and not vice verse? 

Nehama Leibowitz cites the classic book, The Sabbath by Professor A.J. Heschel to answer these questions. Heschel notes that Man is bent on conquering space and increasing the number of things under his control. This is the first commandment G-d gives to Man in the very first chapter of Bereishit, "Fill the Land and Conquer It." Similarly, The Rav in Lonely Man of Faith observed that this is the goal of Adam I, Technological Man. However, in his desire to collect things, man can become enslaved to these very things. It is for this reason that G-d in the culmination to the creation of the world did not make a Holy Space but a Holy Time. The Sabbath is the first thing described by the Torah as being Holy. 

This is radically different from other religious world-views which focus on holiness in space, a Mountain or Temple for G-d. Judaism focuses on holiness in Time. The Sabbath, our palace in Time, is created first and overrides any holy space. In fact, the creation of a Holy Space, first the Mishkan and then the Beit Hamikdash, seems to be only a concession to the needs of Man. Only after Benay Yisrael sinned with the Golden Calf did Moshe command them to build a Holy Space for G-d, the Mishkan. Even then, Moshe emphasizes again and again that this Holy Space is superseded by the even holier palace in Time, the Shabbat.

This lesson still resonates with us today. It is ironic that A.J Heschel who so eloquently argued for G-d's Palace in Time as overriding any Holy Space is associated with the Conservative movement which did the opposite as it abrogated various areas of Shabbat in favor of the centrality of the Synagogue. Ismar Schorsch, the previous chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, noted that the big mistake of the Conservative movement was when it ruled half a century ago to allow Jews to drive to Shul on Shabbat. His reason was not because of the blatant disregard of Halakha that this ruling entailed but rather because the Conservative movement "“gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community.”

It is interesting to examine what he is saying in light of A.J. Heschel's elegant rhetoric. By allowing the Holy Space, the Synagogue, to supersede the Holy Time, the Shabbat, the Conservative movement ultimately failed to create "Shabbos communities", holy spaces where Jews can live and socialize together in close proximity to each other. Today, we talk often about various Orthodox Jewish communities where everyone lives within a 2-mile radius of an Orthodox shul which they can walk to on Shabbat. These people not only meet in shul but socialize together by eating at each other's houses, inviting each other's children for play dates etc. as they all live in the same neighborhood. We rarely discuss similar Conservative or Reformed Jewish communities because people tend to live within a 20 mile radius of each other and therefore have little interaction except in the Synagogue.

Another point made by Heschel which is especially relevant today is his message about Man's desire to use technology or "things" to conquer the world and the need to desist from it one day a week, on the Shabbat. In many discussions that I have had with my students and my colleagues in Jewish education this theme comes up again and again.

Technology such as computers and cell phones were created by Man to make our lives easier. We often can communicate messages more efficiently with a text than with a phone conversation. We can reach a much wider audience on a blog, Facebook account, or Twitter feed than we could ever hope to reach through face-to-face discussions. However, how many of us feel that instead of controlling these technologies, these technologies control us? If the first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do before we go to sleep is check our smartphone then the technology is controlling us. Shabbat is our special gift from G-d, our Palace in Time, when we take a step back and regain control over our own lives by giving up on our drive to use technology to control our world.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Chiddush of the Second Set of Luchot

What was the difference between the first set of Luchot that were carved by G-d and the second set of Luchot that were carved by Moshe?

Rav Saadiah Gaon suggests that the second Luchot were heavier than the first. This seems very strange and in fact the Ibn Ezra strenuously objects to this idea. However, the Neztiv in Haamek Davar explains Rav Saadiah Gaon based on a Midrash.

The Midrash says that Moshe was upset after breaking the Luchot. G-d tries to cheer Moshe up by saying that the first Luchot only had upon them the 10 commandments while the second Luchot have on them the Halachot, Midrash, and Agadot. The Midrash explains elsewhere that at Sinai Moshe was given over the entire Mikra, Mishna, Talmud and even that which the distinguished student will say in front of his Rebbe. How could Moshe be given novel concepts in Torah that were not even thought up yet and how could this be written down on the Luchot?

The Netziv explains that when the Jews were given the first set of Luchot they were given the whole Torah on a silver platter. G-d gave them Torah together with explanations of the pesukim from Moshe Rabbenu. They were not given the ability to make up Chidushim, novel ideas based on their personal Limud Torah. This could only be done using the 13 rules for Drashot from the Torah and using the Socratic method found in the Gemara. These rules and methodologies were not contained in the first Luchot. Rather, the oral law was only lists of Halachot passed down from Moshe. When the Jews faced new situations they could only discover what to do by comparing these new situations to older situations contained in the Torah.

With the second Luchot every student was given the ability to develop novel chidushim in Halacha based on the 13 rules of Torah Drashot and the questioning style of the Talmud. This opened up whole new doors of learning for every student. Torah went from being a rote transmission of facts to being a joint quest between the Torah student and G-d with the goal of developing new ideas from the Torah. This is why Moshe had to carve the second set of Luchot. The Halachot derived using the Talmudic rules transmitted with these Luchot were a partnership between Man and G-d just like these Luchot were written by Man based on the word of G-d.

The reason for this new method of learning contained within the second set of Luchot was the sin of the Egel. The Chet Ha-egel laid the foundation for the later sin of the spies and the later sins that would ultimately lead the Jews into exile spreading Jewry throughout the diaspora. In galus, a stale transmission of facts was not enough. Torah had to become a dynamic living document around which the people could devote their energies during the long exile. The Talmud hermeneutics or Pilpul Shel Torah kept the Jews together as a nation and transmitted the teachings of Torah to future generations. Because the second set of Luchot contained the potential for all of this added learning they were heavier than the first. The first Luchot written with the hand of G-d had greater Kedushah, but the second Luchot contained the greater ability for Chidushay Torah. It is this ability to develop novel Torah concepts that makes Torah learning fresh and vibrant to this very day.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Consistency and Constancy, a Lesson from Cal Ripken and the Karban Tamid

There is a famous Yerushalmi (Nedarim, Chapter 9) which asks what is the most important verse in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva answers, ואהבת לרעך כמוך, "Love your neighbor as yourself". Ben Azzai responds with זה ספר תולדות אדם, "This is the book of the generations of man".

The Ein Yaakov in his introduction to his book quotes a variant Midrash. In this version, Ben Zoma says that שמע ישראל ה' אלוקינו ה' אחד, "Listen Israel, the Lord our God, is one", is even more significant. Ben Nanas quotes "Love your neighbor as yourself", quoted above in the name of Rabbi Akiva. Shimon Ben Pazi quotes a verse from this week's Parsha, Parshat Tetzaveh את הכבש האחד תעשה בבוקר ואת הכבש השני תעשה בין הערבעים, "You shall offer one lamb in the morning (as a sacrifice) and one lamb in the afternoon" (Shemot Chapter 29, Verse 39) as the most important verse in the Torah.

My Rebbe, Rav Yehudah Parnes asked the obvious question on this. Most of these verses make sense. If one would take a poll amongst any group of thinking Jews asking them the most important verse in the Torah, Shema Yisrael, the basic tenet of our faith in God, Ve'ahavta, to love our fellow human being as ourself, and even Toldos HaAdam, the supremacy of man, would be chosen by many respondents. By why the Karban Tamid, the sacrifice brought twice daily, once in the morning and a second time every afternoon?

Rav Parnes answered by referencing Cal Ripken who had recently broken the long standing record held by Lou Gehrig for consecutive games played in Major League Baseball. Why is this record so celebrated in the annals of sports? Because it shows consistency, תמידיות. The mida of consistency, to choose a mitzvah and do it on a always is so important that Shimon Ben Pazi considers it to be more fundamental to our religion than belief in one God or love of one's fellow man. It is the reason why we celebrate those who learn the Daf Yomi, one page of Gemara a day, every day, or those who always daven with a minyan.

In fact, Parshat Tetzaveh is filled with this mida. The Parsha starts with the Menorah which was lit Tamid, consistently, and ends with the Ketoret, the incense, which also burned Tamid. Rashi on the first verse in Tetzaveh points out that there are two types of consistency. The Menorah burned every night. Even though it would extinguish by morning and not burn again until the following night, it was considered to be Tamid. This consistency is to do something on a consistent basis, to set a schedule and then keep to it. The Menorah burned every night.

There is another type of Tamid which Rashi associates with the Lechem Hapanim which is even more difficult to accomplish. This is constancy. The showbread was on the table throughout the week. Even when it was removed every Friday, it was immediately replaced by new bread. There are some mitzvot which one should seek to accomplish constantly, belief in God and love of one's neighbor comes to mind. (Going back to the Major League Baseball record book, Cal Ripken actually accomplished both since he not only holds the record for consecutive games played at 2,632 but also for consecutive innings at 8,243, over 904 games.)

My goal with this new blog is to exercise the discipline possible to achieve this mida of consistency. I hope to publish a Dvar Torah every week either on the Parshat Hashavua or on the Haftorah. I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback as that is what can truly make this an interactive learning experience.