Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Speak truth to power.
Before Torah, pharaohs and kings were seen as gods, and gods could never be challenged. Yet in Torah both Abraham and Moses directly and successfully challenge not only powerful foreign leaders, but even God! Speak truth to power - this is among the most radical teachings of Torah.
Abraham dared to challenge God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, places so filled with evil that God determined that the only suitable solution was utter destruction. Abraham convinced God that the innocent should not be destroyed with the guilty, and asked God to spare the cities if fifty righteous people could be found among the population. Then amazingly, Abraham continued to negotiate, eventually bringing the number of innocent down to ten. God does not punish Abraham, God listens and then agrees that if ten righteous people could be found the cities would be spared. [Gen. 18:16 – 33]
Abraham challenged God once. Moses challenged God on several occasions, and always on the same theme: to save Israel from Divine punishment. The most famous of these instances is the Golden Calf. Moses has been with God at the top of the Mount Sinai for almost 40 days. Not knowing what Moses and God were doing, the Israelites began to panic, and built the Golden Calf. God became incensed and decided to destroy the Israelites and give Moses a new people to lead. Moses challenged God not only on the basis of ethics, but also God’s own reputation among humanity. God listened to Moses and relented. [Ex. 32:1-14]
Korach is also a story of challenging power, but in more ways than one. Korach is a Levite, a cousin to Moses and Aaron. With his two lieutenants, Dathan and Abiram, Korach organizes a group of 250 leaders – chosen from among the tribes – to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He uses the language of democracy, saying: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] Moses first tries to speak with them, but they refuse. Then Moses turns to God to protest his innocence, saying that not one of these men has been wronged by him. Finally, Moses asks that God choose between them.
What happens next is extraordinary. God appears before the entire assembly of Israel, and tells Moses and Aaron to move to a place of safety: Israel is to be destroyed. God has rejected Korach’s challenge because it is not about helping the people, but about grabbing power. Furthermore, because representatives from every tribe joined in, God holds all of Israel responsible. Moses and Aaron fall to their faces and challenge God again, asking that the innocent be spared. God again relents, but singles out Korach and his followers who all die dramatic supernatural deaths for the way they challenged God’s authority.
One might think the story would end here, but the next day, the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of bringing death to the people. Again, God tells Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people. Moses realizes that, this time, there is no time to argue with God, that the punishment has already begun in the form of a plague. So he sends Aaron not away from the people, but into their midst – with a fire pan for a guilt offering. For the first time, Moses and Aaron challenge God not just with words, but with deeds.
What happens next? Some of the Israelites die of the plague – a large number. But the overwhelming majority are spared. Even more, neither Moses nor Aaron are punished for directly disobeying God.
The story of Korach, Moses and Aaron helps us to understand that we can and should stand up to those who have power, but only for the right reasons. Leadership, in Torah terms, is about service. When our leaders truly serve the people, they deserve our support – even if we don’t agree on everything. However, when our leaders are poised to harm the people, even when it is God Almighty, Torah teaches us to stand up for what is right – even if doing so is dangerous.
Speaking truth to power – this is moral obligation Torah places upon us all.
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Some call it the greatest failure of leadership in all of Torah.
God commands Moses to send spies to the Promised Land to bring back report on both the land and the people who live there. Moses chooses twelve spies, one from each tribe, each a prince among his people. They explore the land for forty days and then return carrying a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it. They described the land as “flowing with milk and honey,” fertile beyond their wildest dreams. However, they also reported that the land was inhabited by well-armed people who lived in fortified cities. So far so good. This is an accurate depiction of what they found. The failure in leadership is what follows: two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, argued that we should continue forward. However, the other ten spoke of “a land that consumes those who dwell in it.” [Num. 13:32] Even more, they described the inhabitants as giants, saying that in comparison, “we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we must have been in their eyes.” [Num. 13:33] The people wailed and mourned so much so that they were completely paralyzed, saying: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness would that we had died. And why is the Lord bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? … Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” [Num. 14:2-3]
From among all the people, only Joshua and Caleb offered leadership. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the mob, and panic ruled the day. Let’s not forget that this was the generation that witnessed the Ten Plagues, the Sea part, and the Revelation at Sinai. They saw Pharaoh’s army destroyed and Egypt, the greatest superpower of its day, brought to its knees. Given that personal history, how could they not have confidence in overcoming a handful of Canaanite tribes?
The ten spies who pedaled fear not only encouraged the people to forget about their faith in God, but asserted that they could not put their trust in each other. As a result, God determined that they were not ready, nor would they ever be. For forty years, the Israelites would wander through the Wilderness, during which time the current generation would age and die and a new generation, born to freedom, would arise. Of all the Israelites who left Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb would survive the years of wandering and enter the land.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that great leaders lead by example, and that great leaders do not engage in fear mongering. Rather, great leaders instill confidence – based on realistic assessments – and cultivate our faith in what we can achieve together.
Fear does not empower; fear does not elevate; fear diminishes us and damages our potential. Our greatest leaders have had faith in us, and have taught us to in turn to have faith as well. Consider the amount of faith God places in us. Forget that God has entrusted all of Creation to our care. Let’s looks at something more limited: the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not structured as “if/then” propositions. The commandment does not say: if you commit murder, then this shall be the penalty. That approach subtlety undermines our faith in ourselves – it says, ‘you already know that murder is bad, but without this penalty you might decide to kill anyway.’ No, the command says: “Don’t murder.” In other words, God is saying to us that we are capable. We are capable of not committing murder, or theft, or adultery, or idolatry. We are perfectly capable of not doing any of those things, and by simply saying “don’t” God is in effect also saying that there is a Divine confidence in us. We can succeed. This is great leadership, modeled from on high.
Just as God models great leadership at Sinai, Shelach Lecha models what not to do. However, also it reminds us – through our experience of failure through fear (and our eventual triumph through faith) – that we are not grasshoppers after all.
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Do you know how many books there are in the Torah? According to the sages, the answer is not five, but seven! That’s right, seven. The ancient rabbis broke Numbers into three separate “books,” and the reason why can be found in this week’s Torah portion. Among the many and varied verses in the portion is an oddity of scribed Torah. Two verses from BeHa’alotecha are bracketed in every Torah scroll by a pair of inverted letter nuns:
This is the only place in Torah where we see anything like this. Why are these verses bracketed?
According to the Talmudic rabbis, God personally put these brackets in as a sign above and below these verses to teach, “that this [section] is not in its proper place [in the Torah]. Rabbi says: it is not for this reason, but rather because [this section] ranks as a book unto itself.” (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat, 115b-116a)
Let’s take a closer look at each of these answers. The first argues that God purposefully placed these two verses in the wrong place, and then put these markings in to make sure that we would know. Since the tradition teaches that Torah is perfect, this is part of the perfection of Torah. Where should these verses be? In chapter two, verse seventeen, where the marching and camping order of the camp is detailed and completed and the method of starting each march with moving the mishkan is described. Here’s how the text would read if the bracketed section were to be moved to chapter two:
“Then the tent of meeting, with the camp of the Levites, shall set forward in the midst of the camps; as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards.” (Num. 2:17)
It makes sense from a literary standpoint, but Rabbeinu Bachya takes this even further. He noted that the letter nun represents the number fifty. Numbers 2:17 is fifty sections before 10:35-6, where these verses are currently written.
Pretty cool, right?
Then there is Rabbi’s explanation, that these two verses are a book unto themselves. If this is true, then there are three books in Numbers: everything before this section is one book, the section itself is another, and everything after is a third book. In this reading, the section belongs exactly where it is in Torah – for why would God possibly put something in the wrong place, especially when it comes to Torah?
The Talmud initially seems to agree with Rabbi, and asserts that there are indeed seven books of Torah. According to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, this little “book” was inserted to put a separation between what happens immediately before and immediately after these verses, which he calls the “Two Punishments.” The first “punishment” was that after leaving Sinai it took us only three days to turn away from God. The second is that, despite how God provided us with everything we needed, the people complained vociferously about the food they missed from the “good old days” in Egypt. (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat, 116a) The “punishments,” then, were the severe sins of the people – deserving of Divine retribution. Placing these sins in different books, softens the blow for sensitive readers of the text, and gives Israel a fighting chance.
Rashi ultimately resolves both possibilities in his commentary to the Talmud. He taught that these verses are in the correct place now, but will be returned to their rightful place in chapter two when the Messiah comes and there will be no more Divine retribution.
The theological implications of these ideas are both extraordinary and practical. First, there is a direct causal link between leaving God behind and personal dissatisfaction. Even in the Wilderness, our awareness of the Divine Presence provides a sense of well-being, safety and fulfillment. When we turn away from God, we begin to discover an emptiness inside – and that emptiness leads us towards deep dissatisfaction even when we have everything we need. With God we feel the calm joy which comes with faith; without God we experience unhappiness, anxiety and fear. To leave God at Sinai is not only a sin against God, but a sin against ourselves!
Second, the choice to either embrace or abandon God not only effects our own individual lives, but the course of Creation. In other words, it has cosmic implications. Why? According to tradition, the World to Come – the world of peace and well-being we all wish could live in, will be ushered in by the Messiah. However, that will only happen when we no longer live in such a way as to deserve Divine retribution. In other words, the Messiah will only come when we have already done the heavy lifting to make this world the World to Come.
All of this from two little brackets …
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
It is just days after our celebration of Shavuot, when we reenacted the Revelation at Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments as if we stood at the base of the mountain. Following such a spiritual high, what will we read in Torah on this Shabbat? Perhaps the strangest ritual in all of Torah: the test of the sotah. It is as if we are watching Monty Python, as they quip: “And now for something completely different.” Parashat Naso covers many topics, and among them is what to do when a husband suspects and then accuses his wife of infidelity. The ritual assumes that there are no witnesses, so it is his word against hers.
What is the ritual of the sotah? The husband brings his wife before the priest and accuses her of adultery, because “a spirit of jealousy may have overcome him.” [Num. 5:14] He then offers a jealousy sacrifice, a remembrance offering and a guilt offering. The priest brings the woman forward to stand before God, since only God can know what did or did not happen. The priest then takes holy water, and places some dirt from the floor into the water. With her palms on the offerings, the woman must swear before the priest that the now bitter water will determine the verdict: if she has cheated, then her “belly will swell and her thighs will sag,” if not then nothing will happen. The priest writes down the words of her oath and dissolves them in the bitter water, which she then drinks.
On the surface, this is a horrible and demeaning ritual. It unfairly singles out women, does not seem to hold men accountable for adultery, and seems otherwise just bizarre. There is good reason why Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai effectively legislated this rite out of existence in the Mishnah. [Sotah 9:9] That said, as with most of Torah, there is more here than meets the eye. The most likely outcome of the ritual is that nothing will happen. Drinking water with a little dirt and ink would cause no harm, and the priest would then declare the woman innocent. Furthermore, because the priest is the representative of God, there could be no appeal – and it would be the husband, not the wife, who would then be shamed. In context, this odd ritual provides a level of protection to women in a patriarchal society.
There may also be a connection with Shavuot, or more precisely, the Ten Commandments. The third commandment requires that we not worship other gods, because God is an Eil kana. Eil means God. Kana can mean either zealous or jealous. Then, in the Tenth Commandment, we are commanded not to covet. The primary motivation for coveting is jealousy.
Where does this leave us?
On the one hand, we know that jealousy is a toxic emotion. Left unfettered, jealousy can ruin relationships and in some cases, destroy lives. On the other hand, it seems that jealousy is an attribute of God, and we are taught that not only are we made in the Divine image but that we should emulate God. How do we reconcile this tension?
To be completely honest, I do not know … but there are a few suggestive clues.
It seems that while God may be able to take jealousy in stride, people cannot. As far as I can tell, out of 613 commandments, Torah only legislates two emotions: one positive and one negative. On the positive side, we are commanded to love. We are commanded to love God, and we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. On the negative side, we are commanded not to be jealous. We are reminded that jealousy leads to hatred in our hearts, and we are taught that jealousy destroys. From the human perspective, this is enough for me.
From a theological perspective, the idea of God as jealous still nags. We know that we are not God, that we should not attempt to act as if we were God. We also know that we should emulate God to the best of our limited and human ability. Where is the line? Where is jealousy relative to that line?
The answer may very will reside with you.
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Our parasha is far more than a tribal census: it is our true beginning as a people. In Genesis, we were a small family of nomads. In Exodus, we were first slaves in Egypt and then a vast mob of people escaping our bondage. Leviticus steps outside of our narrative to focus on the priestly laws, so that from the standpoint of a timeline, Numbers picks up where Exodus finishes.
BaMidbar , the Hebrew name of both the book of Numbers and this week’s portion, means “In the Wilderness.” In the Wilderness, God revealed Torah in the hearing of all Israel at Sinai. In the Wilderness, a new generation would be born and raised in freedom on our way to the Promised Land. In the Wilderness, a mob of slaves became a nation, and it all began with a census.
The Toraitic census was quite different from a modern census. A modern census tries to capture demographic information about a population: how many people live in each city, state or nation; what are their ages, genders, ethnicities, etc. A modern census is about who we are, where we live now, and perhaps about how well we live. A modern census is about the present. The census at the beginning of Numbers is about the future.
First, each tribe is given a specific location within the camp. At the center of the camp will be the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The tribe of Levi will surround the Mishkan. The twelve tribes of Israel are located along the four points of a compass, with three tribes assigned to specific places along each axis. Once these sub-camps are established, they will be the Israelite formation on the march and at rest. Marching and camping in formation marks the end of the former mob of slaves. It is a new beginning.
But there is more.
Of the tribes of Israel, each male who is of age to fight must be counted. From within the tribe of Levi, a similar count of those able to serve at the Tabernacle is taken. Each tribe is assigned a purpose – either protecting the people from external attack, or connecting the people with God through sacrificial offerings. No longer property, each Israelite has the ability to make a difference in their community.
But there is more.
The Hebrew phrase often translated as “count the heads” really has another meaning altogether. Se’u et rosh literally means: “lift the heads.” The census elevates the Israelites – and in many ways.
We are elevated when we know that we have a special place that is ours. Put simply, after the census we know that we belong, because each of us has a special place in the camp. The place where we belong, where we will always belong, we call home. Home for us is not a physical structure – it is a spiritual one. Home is where our family, where our people live. Even when we are in exile, we are at home with each other. Even more, we need each other. Each of us has different tasks to fulfill, not just in the moment, but in the future as well. If one tribe were to neglect its responsibility, all of Israel would become vulnerable. In other words, each one of us matters. Our lives have worth.
A modern census counts heads, and when it is concluded we have been counted. The census BaMidbar, lifts our heads. When it is concluded we finally understand that it is each one of us who count.
And that is when the real journey begins.
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
In last week’s parasha, Kedoshim, we read the Holiness Code. Kedoshim is for all of Israel, it details how each of us can strive for holiness. This week the exploration of holiness continues, but the focus shifts from all of Israel to the priests, and especially, to the high priest. Emor details a whole slew of additional requirements for the priests, such as prohibitions regarding contact with the dead and who priests may or may not marry. However, early in the parasha, we encounter a verse with startling implications:
“You shall sanctify him [the priest], for he offers up the food offering of your God; he shall be holy to you, for I the Lord Who sanctifies you am holy.” (Lev. 21:8)
This verse is different than the others in this section because it is directed to us, not to the priests. We, not Moses, not the other priests, are commanded to sanctify the priest.
The tradition interprets this verse to mean that the first reading from the Torah scroll in synagogue is reserved for the priest. The Talmudic rabbis underline the importance of this practice by legislating that if no kohen (priest) is found then the honor may not be transferred to anyone else. The first reading is for the kohen alone. (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 59b)
The first aliyah, the first reading from Torah is a very high honor, and since kadosh (the Hebrew word for holy) literally means ‘set apart for God,’ setting aside the first aliyah for the kohen technically fulfills the commandment: every synagogue that follows this practice is setting aside the kohen for God during the Torah service.
That said, is this enough to fulfill the commandment? Is setting aside the first aliyah truly a meaningful sanctification? Even more, what does it mean to sanctify the priests when we no longer offer sacrifices? Is it simply to maintain the holiness/purity of the line in the hope that one day the sacrificial cult will be reestablished?
For those who daily pray for the rebuilding of a Third Temple, the maintenance of the first aliyah for the kohanim by the synagogue is enough - so long as the kohanim themselves continue to follow the other holiness restrictions that have remained for them following the destruction of the Second Temple.
Yet regardless of our specific hopes for a messianic future, there is another possibility that bubbles to the surface. Emor is clearly about the priests, rather than all of Israel. It clearly lays out a whole slew of additional restrictions to further separate the kohanim from Israel so that they can maintain an even higher level of holiness. And, in order for the kohanim to succeed in maintaining their higher level of holiness it is necessary not only for the priests to live within specific boundaries, but for Israel as a whole to make the priests holy. Without the help of the entire community, the priests will never truly be holy. We, the collective of Israel, are their guarantors.
But wait, there’s more.
Earlier in Torah, at the top of Mount Sinai, God commanded Moses to teach Israel the importance of staying true to the Covenant. If we do so, the result for us is definitive: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6)
Following Torah makes us a kingdom of priests – we are all on a path towards holiness. Yes, most of us are not genetically kohanim, but we are nevertheless rodfei kodesh, pursuers of holiness. And, like the priestly caste, none of us can succeed on our own. Each of us needs the help of our tradition and our friends and neighbors; each of us needs to be sanctified through the many mays we are supported in holy community.
The High Priest and the institutions of the Temple in Jerusalem may be no more, but we can and must sanctify each other, help each other on our sacred paths of Torah.
There is no other way forward.
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
What is the essence of Torah?
For generations, the sages argued and debated about which verses from the Hebrew Bible best summed up Judaism. Most people consider Hillel’s answer the best. Hillel famously turned to this week’s parasha, to the section known as the Holiness Code: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) However, Hillel did not quote the text as written, but rather framed it in the negative, teaching what we should not do: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a)
I love Hillel’s answer. Hillel’ statement acknowledges that love is a difficult emotion to scale. How can we truly love everyone if we love some people more than others? For that matter, how can we even measure our love to know if we are properly observing the commandment? Hillel brilliantly concretizes the commandment: treat others the way we want to be treated.
I love Hillel’s answer, but I don’t think that it sums up the entirety of Torah.
There are 613 commandments in the Torah, all of which fall into two categories: ethical commandments and religious commandments. When we focus on how we interact with each other, we enter the realm of ethics, so the ethical commandments are those which mediate our relationships with each other. Examples of ethical commandments include the commandments against murder, stealing and adultery. Similarly, the religious commandments mediate our relationships with God. The commandments to observe Shabbat and avoid idolatry are examples of religious commandments.
Hillel’s restatement of the Golden Rule encapsulates the essence of the ethical commandments, but does not address the religious commandments.
There is, however, another verse - also from the Holiness Code - that encapsulates both the religious and the ethical values of the entirety of Torah: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
Kadosh, the Hebrew word for ‘holy,’ literally means ‘set apart for God.’ Shabbat is holy, because it is set apart from the other six days of the week. The observance of both the religious and the ethical commandments together sets us apart for God. One without the other is insufficient. The Holiness Code itself demonstrates this through its structure: a series of successive stanzas which pair ethical and religious commandments together before ending with some variant of the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares a lovely insight about the commandment: “holiness is a developing condition, not a completed one. Only God is kadosh now.” (Voices of Torah, CCAR Press, p. 314) The essence of Torah, then, is our journey towards holiness, our sacred act of becoming.
All the rest is commentary; let us go and study …
Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
For seven days, Aaron, his sons and all of Israel have observed the investiture rites of the priesthood, and the time has arrived for the final sacrifices. As the significance of the event required, there were several different kinds of sacrifices: some Aaron offered on his own behalf, others on behalf of all Israel.
Rabbi Yonatan ben Uzziel, the greatest of Hillel’s students, found meaning in the details of the sin offerings. He wondered why Aaron is specifically commanded to offer a bull-calf for his sin offering, while Israel’s offering must be a goat. His answer? The bull-calf was an atonement for the Golden Calf which Aaron had fashioned at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The goat was for the goat’s blood that the Jacob’s sons used to lie to him about their part in Joseph’s demise.
Why should we care? Aaron’s sin offering is the easier to understand. He made the idolatrous Golden Calf with his own hands just as Moses was receiving the Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai. This severe failure in leadership led to catastrophic results. Before Aaron could fully assume the mantle of priestly leadership, he needed to make atonement.
The goat offered on behalf of Israel is a little more difficult because the story of the goat’s blood happened hundreds of years before the Exodus. Joseph’s brothers, in a fit of jealousy, removed his special coat, threw him into a deep pit and left him alone as they went off to discuss what they would do with him next. While they were off in the distance, Joseph was captured by slavers and sent on his way to Egypt. When the brothers returned and found the pit empty, they panicked. What would they tell Jacob, their father? To cover their tracks, they slaughtered a goat and splattered its blood on Joseph’s coat, which they then offered to Jacob as ‘proof’ that Joseph had been killed by wild beasts. While Aaron had committed his sin personally, the rest of Israel was generations removed from the acts of Joseph and his brothers. How could they be held accountable for their forbears’ sin?
Maimonides gives us a part of the answer, and psychology gives us the rest. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote: “When we commit a sin, we, our children, and the children of our children require atonement for that sin by some kind of service analogous to the sin committed. If a person has sinned in respect to property, that person must liberally spend his or her property in the service of God; … If one went astray in respect to one’s moral conduct, one must oppose his or her failings by keeping to the opposite extreme.” (Guide for the Perplexed. III:6) Maimonides first reminds us of the biblical principle that when we sin, not only are we damaged by the act, but also our descendants (more on this in the next paragraph). Then he elucidates the principle that to truly change our ways, we must use the specific agency of our transgression to right our wrong behaviors. Aaron offers a calf to God to atone for building a calf-shaped idol. Israel, the descendants of Jacob’s sons (including the descendants of Joseph) offer a goat to atone for their ancestors transgressions.
So how can the Israelites be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors? They can’t. However, they are accountable for themselves. Psychology has taught us the power of “past programming.” At a very young age, we learn and internalize the behaviors of our parents, grandparents, siblings and extended family. This is called “past programming” and explains why behavioral cycles, whether abusive or life affirming, continue generation after generation within our families. We are not defined by our past programming, but it exerts a profound influence upon us. If we wish to create a new behavioral pattern, it takes the difficult work of recognizing what we want to change, becoming aware when we fall into our old patterns, and then willing ourselves to consistently change our behaviors.
While we don’t like to admit it, our ancestral family from the generation of Abraham through Joseph, was seriously dysfunctional. There is no reason to assume that our experience in Egypt would have changed things for the better. Indeed, we know from the text that the Israelites in the Wilderness still struggled with the root cause of their ancestors’ sins. Joseph’s brothers were afraid for, and probably also of, their father. The Israelites-suddenly-freed-from-generations-of-slavery were afraid of just about everything they encountered. Offering a goat in atonement to God is both a symbol and a new beginning. It reminds us that we have a better choice, and that with God we need not fear.
Making this kind of change is anything but easy, and the generation that left Egypt ultimately failed. However, this special sacrificial rite laid some of the groundwork for the next generation – those who would grow up free and eventually inherit the Promised Land. They broke the old pattern and established themselves anew. From their time until ours, each generation is given the same opportunity.
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
Ours is a right-brain left-brain tradition. In synagogue, rather than just reading the text, we chant from the sacred Torah scroll. The Masorites developed our musical system for chanting, called Taamei HaMikra, in the 10th century and assigned special symbols to the text that represent specific musical tropes or melodies. The tropes not only transform Torah into music, but add a beautiful element of interpretation, calling the listener’s attention to subtleties within the text.
In Tzav, we find the last of only four occurrences of the rare shalshelet trope. Shalshelet means “chain” and is an extended melody that contains a series of notes that are repeated three times before the music finally resolves. Each time it occurs, the shalshelet describes an internal struggle hinted at by the text. Lot hesitates to leave Sodom – shalshelet. Eliezer hesitates to find a bride for Isaac – shalshelet. Joseph hesitates before saying “no” to the seductive overtures of Potiphar’s wife – shalshelet. In Tzav, when Moses is instructed to conduct the ceremony that makes his brother Aaron the High Priest, the shalshelet appears over the word vayishchat (“and he slaughtered [the sacrificial ram]” Lev. 8:23).
What is Moses’ struggle? Why does he hesitate before offering the sacrifice on behalf of Aaron?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that this is the act in which Moses surrenders his role as sole leader of Israel. From this moment on, Aaron will no longer be Moses’ second fiddle, but will be the primary conduit for the spiritual connection between the people and God. Moses will continue as prophet, but the priesthood will pass to Aaron and his descendants.
We all face life-defining choices and existential decisions, and there is nothing easy about these moments. Rabbi Sacks writes: “To say yes to who we are, we have to courage to say no to who we are not. Pain and conflict are involved. That is the meaning of the shalshelet. But we emerge less conflicted than we were before.”
Each shalshelet highlights a moment of existential clarity. Lot is a Hebrew not a Sodomite. Eliezer is the servant of Abraham, not his heir. Joseph follows the moral code of God, not the ways of Egypt. Moses is a prophet, not a priest.
Who are we?
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Everything we do, everything we are as Jews, is framed by the Covenant between Israel and God. So, when a young boy was brought to his first day at cheder, at Torah school, the tradition was that he would begin with this week’s parasha. VaYikra, the first word in the text, means “And [God] called.” Our very first lesson is that God calls to each of us. To what exactly are we called? How do we hear the call? These we argue, however, the scribing of the text itself provides a clue.
In every Torah scroll, the last letter of VaYikra, an aleph, is written in a smaller size. Every time I see this, I am reminded of the story of the Revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, we became a covenanted people. Smoke poured from the mountain, the ground shook, there was thunder and lightning, and God spoke Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances, from on high. The first thing the Torah describes after the Ten Commandments is how the people were utterly terrified: they begged Moses to go up the mountain for them and bring the rest back. On the surface, it seems like Israel heard all Ten Commandments before crying to Moses for help, and most of the Classical Rabbinic commentators agree. However, not everything in Torah is as it seems. There is an odd grammatical shift between the First Commandment and those that follow. The First Commandment is written as God speaking in the first person, “I am the Lord your God ... you shall have no other gods besides Me." However, the others reference God in the third person, as in, "You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name."
Why would God switch to the third person? Isn’t that the way Moses would speak rather than God? As you might imagine, some rabbis began to wonder if the grammar changed because the speaker changed. It began to look like we only heard the first commandment before becoming overwhelmed and begging Moses to make it stop.
But what if even that was too much? Some rabbis said we only heard the first phrase: "I am the Lord your God.” After all that phrase encompasses both the reality of God and our covenantal relationship. Frank Rosenzweig, the early Twentieth Century philosopher, suggested that we only heard the first word “I” (Anochi in Hebrew). Truly hearing the “Anochi” of God, is like taking the entire Torah to heart. Then, there is the early Hassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, who taught that even one word from God was too much for us.
What did Israel hear? According to Rabbi Menachem, it was the first letter of the first word: the alef. Contrary to what many of us think, the aleph is not a completely silent letter. Rather, the aleph is the tiny guttural sound we make at the back of our throats just as we are about to speak. Of course, to hear an alef, what do we need to do?
Listen. Very. Carefully.
Rabbi Menachem taught that God has been transmitting the sacred alef of revelation since the beginning of time, and will continue until time itself ends.. The great miracle at Sinai was not that God spoke, but that we, all of Israel at the same time, listened.
 Exodus 20:2-3
 Exodus 20:7
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras