The Sabbath of Greatness

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays


Many reasons have been offered as to why this Sabbath before the holiday of Passover is known by the name Shabbat ha-Gadol. Allow me to commend to your attention one such reason, which I find particularly significant. The author of the Tur, one of the greatest legal codes of Judaism, maintains that our Sabbath is known as Shabbat ha-Gadol lefi she-na‘aseh bo nes gadol—because a great miracle was performed on this day (Tur, Orah Hayyim 430). It was on this day of the year that the Jews were liberated from Egypt, that they summoned up the courage to take the lambs that were tied to their doorposts and slaughter them as sacrifices to Almighty God. This act outraged the Egyptians, for whom the lamb was a divinity. They were stunned by the effrontery of these miserable Hebrew slaves who dared, in the presence of their masters, to exert their own religious independence. And yet, ve-lo hayu rasha’in lomar lahem davar, the Egyptians could not and did not say a word in an attempt to stop the Israelites. Because of this nes gadol, this great miracle, the Sabbath was called Shabbat ha-Gadol, the great Sabbath.

This is, indeed, a beautiful explanation. But there is something troubling about it. Granted that the silence of the Egyptians, their sudden paralysis, was a true miracle. But what makes this a “great” miracle? Why gadol? This was an era which saw the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, the ten plagues, and the splitting of the Red Sea. Were these miracles not at least equally great? How does one measure the size or significance of miracles?

I believe the answer can be most instructive. For nes gadol refers not to the silence of the Egyptians, but to the miracle of Jewish character. What we celebrate is not a great miracle, but the miracle of greatness. And I refer not only to the courageous defiance exercised by the Jews in Egypt, but to an even more significant fact. The other miracles of which we read and which we celebrate allowed the Israelites to escape and survive, but in the process the Egyptian enemy was hurt, injured, or killed. The plagues caused a great deal of pain for the Egyptians, and the splitting of the Red Sea was followed by the drowning of the hordes of Pharaoh. This miracle, however, involved no injury to the enemy. The Jews grew and rose in stature, but no one was hurt. It was not the kind of bravado or courage that is expressed in doing violence to one’s neighbor. Shabbat ha-Gadol celebrates nes gadol, the magic and the miracle of genuine greatness achieved by our people. This was real gadlut: greatness from within, not at someone else’s expense.

The story is told of the great saint and sage R. Israel Salanter was walking in the street one day and encountered two boys who had been fighting with each other. The stronger had thrown the weaker into a ditch at the side of the road. “What is going on?” asked the rabbi. The stronger boy answered, “We had an argument as to which of us is taller. So I threw him into a ditch to prove to him that I am taller than he.” “Foolish boy,” replied the rabbi, “could you not have achieved the same purpose by standing on a chair rather than throwing him into a ditch?”

What the rabbi was teaching was a secret of true greatness. Gadlut consists of achieving eminence without crushing another human being.

And oh, how rare is that quality of nes gadol, the miracle of greatness. Everyone wants to be great, and so few know the Jewish secret of greatness. The big powers all want to appear great and acceptable in the eyes of the uncommitted bloc of Afro-Asian nations. It is a national policy of our government to try to gain in popularity amongst the new nations. It is not for us here to decide the validity of this principle. But I know that many Americans were saddened when Adlai Stevenson, the American ambassador to the U.N., this past week chastised the State of Israel for defending itself against Syrian attacks. He seems to be afflicted with what has become a traditional liberal blindness—the inability or unwillingness to discriminate between the hooligan’s attack and the victim’s defense. It is of one piece with a popular liberal attitude that expends much more energy and sentiment in defending the murderer from punishment than in preventing the victim from having suffered in the first place. We were saddened and disappointed when Ambassador Stevenson—who, according to the British press, acted without authorization of and to the chagrin of the State Department—attempted to act big in the eyes of the Arabs and their friends by reproaching the loneliest of all nations. No eloquence and no humor can disguise the katnut, the smallness of spirit, of a man who, rather than stand on a chair, will throw Israel into a diplomatic ditch.

And the same lesson holds true for all of us. It is true for the State of Israel, which also often finds that it suffers from overpoliticization, with the partisanship of its political parties often exceeding all bounds. Political consciousness of the citizenry is good, but when each individual party—and this holds true for all of them—tries to gain in prestige and power at the expense of all others, by belittling and scandalizing others, then the State itself begins to suffer.

It holds true for American Jewish organizations, where the progress of American Jewry is all too often stifled because of the unwillingness of the various organizations to unify or at least cooperate, not so much to protect their own autonomy as to make sure that the other organizations do not receive credit and power.

As individuals, Shabbat ha-Gadol reminds us that the way to greatness in business should never come by crushing competitors. In our professions we should not attempt to achieve prestige by hurting colleagues. The concept of nes gadol teaches each of us not only how to act, but also how to think; in our innermost hearts, we should measure our own success or failure not relative to our neighbors, but by absolute standards. We must, each of us, attempt to grow great by ourselves, not only by comparison to the smallness of others.

But granted the negative aspect of this definition of gadlut or greatness, that it must not come at the expense of others, what is the positive or affirmative definition? What do we mean when we say that one must grow big by himself and through himself?

Perhaps the Talmud can help us here. In discussing the laws of metzi’ah, or finds, talmudic law is that if one finds an object which has no distinguishing marks and is unclaimed, he may keep it. If he is a child, a katan, the metzi’ah belongs to his father or guardian. If he is a gadol, an adult, then it belongs to himself. And yet, the Talmud maintains, Lo katan katan mammash ve-lo gadol gadol mammash (Bava Metzi‘a 12b)—whereas “child” and “adult” normally refer to chronology or physical development, that is, before or after the age of thirteen, that does not hold true in this context. Katan or ketannim with regard to finds is not a question of age, but a question of independence. A minor, or katan, is one ha-somekh al shulhan aviv o shulhan shel aherim—who literally relies or leans on the table of his father or on the table of others. A gadol, or adult, is one who has his own table, who supports himself.

I believe this is more than an economic definition in Jewish financial law. It is a lesson for all of life. To be gadol, great, means to be yourself, to draw upon your own spiritual resources, to live true to your own destiny and character.

A spiritual katan will beg for crumbs from the tables of others; one who has achieved gadlut will repair to his own table, no matter how sparse the food may be.

In Egypt, throughout their servitude, our ancestors were in the category of those who “rely on the table of others.” They had assimilated Egyptian life and values, Egyptian culture and religion. They had sunk to spiritual minority, or katnut, and this kind of katnut cannot be redeemed or healed by plagues or the splitting of seas or political independence. What was needed was nothing less than a miracle—the nes gadol, the miracle of genuine greatness by an act which affirms the spiritual self, a rallying to unique Jewish destiny and image and character, a courageous cutting of the cultural umbilical cord which tied the Jewish victims to their Egyptian persecutors. This was achieved through shehitat eloheihem, through the slaughtering of the Egyptians’ gods and the rejection of their idolatry, which until that time had been accepted by the Israelites. This was the miracle of Jewish greatness. No one else was hurt, and it was an act of spiritual independence.

This is a teaching which holds true universally. He who lives by leave of another, he who satisfies his cultural hunger by crumbs from strange tables, he who seeks esteem by alien standards—he is a katan. The abject conformist, the servile status-seeker, the eternal mah yafisnik—these are ketannim in long trousers. Jews whose lifelong ambition it is to imitate non-Jews, Jewish movements and doctrines which pine for crumbs from the tables of secularism or Unitarianism, from Deweyism or Marxism—and there are such movements here and overseas—are minors with big vocabularies. Those who are willing to settle for Jewish statehood, but are ready to abandon all attempts at the greater aspiration for Jewish selfhood, they suffer from stunted spiritual growth.

The first promise that God gave to the first Jew, Abraham, was Ve-e‘eskha

le-goy gadol, “And I shall make you into a great nation” (Gen. 12:2). God did not mean goy gadol insofar as numbers or power is concerned; we Jews have never had much of either. He meant a nation of genuine greatness. And that is why later, when God tells Abraham of the future bitter exile of his descendants in Egypt, He gives him the greatest consolation: Ve-aharei khen yetze’u bi-rekhush gadol (Gen 15:14). This is usually translated, “And afterwards they will leave with great wealth.” I believe the real translation is, “And afterwards they will leave with a wealth of greatness.” Great wealth is an ordinary ambition; a wealth of greatness is the extraordinary Jewish aspiration.

Our haftarah for today concludes with a promise by the Almighty: Hinneh anokhi sholeah lakhem et Eliyyah ha-navi lifnei bo yom Hashem ha-gadol ve-hanora, “Behold, I shall send to you the prophet Elijah before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Mal. 3:23). We have a choice: gadol or nora, great or terrible. We live in a world where decisions must be made. We live in a world where Elijah calls out to us as he did to the Jews gathered about him at Mount Carmel, saying, “How long will you waver?”

In our world, there can be no wavering and no indecisiveness. It is either/ or: either be Jewish and great, or cringe at the tables of others and nora, terrible. The world we live in will not permit leisurely smallness. Judaism cannot survive with pettiness of the spirit and the immaturity of Jewish mindlessness. If we return to Torah and tradition, we can ourselves forge the nes of gadol. If, Heaven forbid, we do not, we must face and expect the terrible failure of katnut. On Shabbat ha-Gadol, we strive for the experience of yom Hashem hagadol, and by once again becoming a goy gadol, we will be able to bequeath to our children and children’s children a rekhush gadol, a heritage of authentic greatness.

Ve-heshiv lev avot al banim, ve-lev banim al avotam—“And the Lord shall cause the heart of the fathers to return to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their father” (Mal. 3:24).

The Seder Night: Exalted Evening

Excerpted from ‘The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening’ A Passover Haggadah with a commentary based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik; Edited by Rabbi Menachem D. Genack Click here to buy the book

Exalted Evening Haggadahסדר הקערה The Talmud (Pesachim 114b) discusses the requirement to place shenei tavshilin, two cooked items, on the Seder plate, commemorating the korban Pesach and the chagigah offering that were eaten when sacrifices were brought in the Temple. Rav Huna says that this requirement may be fulfilled by using beets and rice. According to Rav Yosef, one must use two different types of meat. Rambam (Hilkhot Chametz u-Matzah 8:1) follows the opinion of Rav Yosef, while the popular custom is to place one item of meat and an egg on the Seder plate (see Kesef Mishneh, loc cit.).

The presence of the egg at the Seder also has another source. The first day of Passover always occurs on the same day of the week as Tishah be-Av, the day that marks the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews (Orach Chayyim 428:3). Accordingly, the custom is to eat an egg, a symbol of mourning, on the first night of Pesach (see Rama, Orach Chayyim 476:2). The egg, therefore, symbolizes both joy, the chagigah, and mourning, Tish’ah be-Av.

The Beit ha-Levi explains the correlation between the first day of Passover and Tish’ah be-Av as follows. Several midrashic sources indicate that the Exodus from Egypt was premature. The Jews were supposed to have been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years but were redeemed after only 210 years. After 210 years of exile, the Jews were in danger of completely losing their Jewish identity. Had they remained in Egypt any longer, they would have been hopelessly assimilated. The urgent need to redeem them without further delay explains why the Exodus occurred “be-chipazon, in haste” (Deut. 16:3). God, therefore, redeemed them prematurely, and the balance of their term of exile would have to be completed in future exiles. Thus, the redemption from Egypt was not a complete redemption, since it was the cause of the later exiles. It is, therefore, appropriate to eat an egg, an open expression of mourning, on the very night of redemption.

It is interesting to note that the terminology of shenei tavshilin occurs with respect to the laws both of Passover, when one is required to place shenei tavshilin on the plate, and of Tish’ah be-Av, when one may not eat shenei tavshilin in the meal preceding the Tish’ah be-Av fast. The similar terminology further points to the correlation between Passover and Tish’ah be-Av.


סדר ליל פסח There is a logic and a structure not only to the Maggid section of the Haggadah, but also to the entire Seder. The Gemara emphasizes in several places the necessity of preserving the proper order of performance on Pesach night. For example, the Gemara (Pesachim 114b–115a) asks what blessing should be made if one must eat maror before the Maggid section because there is no other vegetable for karpas. It is evident from the discussion that the fulfillment of the mitzvah of maror would not have occurred the first time it was eaten when it was eaten as karpas, but rather the second. If one could fulfill the mitzvah of maror at the first dipping, the whole discussion of the Gemara would be superfluous. Apparently, one may not eat maror before matzah. According to Rashbam (Pesachim 114a), the sequential order of eating matzah first and then maror is biblically mandated. This is based on the verse “al matzot u-merorim yo’kheluhu, they shall eat it (the korban Pesach) with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Num. 9:11), implying that the matzot are eaten first, and then the maror. The requirement to maintain a sequence, however, is also applicable to the entire Seder.

In order to explain this, we must understand that each of the mitzvoth of Pesach night has two aspects, two kiyumim, two fulfillments. The mitzvah of sipur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim is discharged in a twofold way – through the medium of speech and through symbolic actions. A person who eats the matzah and the maror before saying Maggid fulfills the mitzvah of eating matzah, but does not fulfill the mitzvah of sipur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim by means of eating matzah. That is what the Gemara (Pesachim 115b) means by referring to matzah, lechem oni (Deut. 16:3), as “lechem she-onin alav devarim harbeh, the bread over which we recite many things.” Since eating matzah is also part of sipur, we understand the need for Seder, for a particular order of performance.

(Kol ha-Rav)

The language utilized by Rambam in his introduction to the order of the Pesach Seder is reminiscent of his introduction to the Temple service of Yom Kippur. In Hilchot Chametz u-Matzah (8:1), Rambam begins “Seder, the order, for the performance of the mitzvoth on the night of the fifteenth is as follows.” In Hilchot Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim (4:1), Rambam begins, “Seder, the order, for the performances of the day is as follows.” Just as following the order of the Yom Kippur service is essential for the proper performance of the mitzvah, so, too, following the order of the Seder is essential for the proper fulfillment of the mitzvoth of this night of the fifteenth of Nisan. By following an order we demonstrate that all the parts of the Seder are interconnected and only collectively do they properly retell the story of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. If, for instance, one were to consume the matzah before reciting Maggid, the narrative would be deficient in that one would not have satisfied the facet of lechem oni, bread over which we are to recount the Exodus. Similarly, the karpas is intended to elicit the questions that will enable the Maggid discussion to proceed, and the failure to eat the karpas in its proper sequence would impair or forestall the Maggid section. Only through adherence to the prescribed order can we express the overarching principles and ideas that are intended to emerge from, and which are coordinated with, our actions on the Seder night. (Reshimot)

Mi She’asah Nissim: The Prayer

He who performed miracles for our ancestorsYerach Tov

Excerpted from Yerach Tov: Birkat HaChodesh in Jewish Law and Liturgy, but Rabbi Elchanan Adler

Why do we mention our exodus from Egypt and pray for redemption specifically in the context of Birkat HaChodesh? What resonance do these memories and prayers have with the institution of Birkat HaChodesh?

Levush explains that the Jews were commanded to sanctify new months immediately prior to the exodus from Egypt. Remembering this, we pray for a similar experience, i.e., that our Birkat HaChodesh be a precursor of redemption.

Levush cites an alternate explanation that we pray for redemption during Birkat HaChodesh to evoke our longing for Kiddush HaChodesh, which can only be restored when the holy Temple is standing. Levush rejects this reasoning based on the historical fact that Kiddush HaChodesh continued for many years after the Temple’s destruction, and presumably can be reinstituted even many years before the Temple’s rebuilding.

Derekh Pikudekha defends the reason rejected by Levush by suggesting that Kiddush HaChodesh is a ceremony historically connected to the concept of a unified, religious Jewish Eretz Yisrael. The calendric method of sanctifying months was innovated by Hillel HaNasi in response to the increasing dispersion of Diaspora Jewry. Had the Jewish community remained together, we might have maintained the original method of Kiddush HaChodesh. Thus, recalling Kiddush HaChodesh during Birkat HaChodesh, we pray for the reunification of all Jews and restoration of the original Kiddush HaChodesh.

In a similar vein, this can be explained in light of the comments of Ramban who states that Hillel HaNasi instituted the calendric system in response to the deterioration of centralized religious Jewish authority, i.e., to the waning and ultimate disappearance of a beit din that had semikhah in a direct line from Moshe Rabbenu. Recalling Kiddush HaChodesh, we pray for restoration of the beit din’s authority and the return of genuine semikhah, occasions usually associated with the ultimate redemption.

R. Yaakov Emden argues that mention of the moon, rather than remembrance of Kiddush HaChodesh, possesses eschatological symbolism. At the end of days, Hashem promises, the moon’s light will be as bright as that of the sun. Moreover, Rashi writes that the Davidic dynasty is compared to a moon. Indeed, the gematriya (numerical equivalent) of “David Melekh Yisrael chai vekayam, David, King of Israel, lives and stands” equals that of “Rosh Chodesh” (819). Hence, we pray for redemption because mention of the new moon evokes yearning for the end of days and the Davidic dynasty.

The idea is explicitly articulated by an early authority, Maharaz Binga:

We mention the redemption since we are destined to rejuvenate like the moon. When? At the time of redemption, as it says, “Your youth will rejuvenate like the eagle.”

R. Shlomo b. R. Shimshon of Germaiza adds that in the end of days, every Rosh Chodesh will become a holiday. Hence, we find it especially relevant to pray for redemption when recalling Rosh Chodesh. Finally, Siddur Avodat Yisrael points out that Kiddush HaChodesh always involved prayers and requests that the new month’s sanctifiers directed to Hashem. At Birkat HaChodesh, in memory of Kiddush HaChodesh, we also pray and direct to Hashem our sincerest and most heartfelt request: that He restore His glory by redeeming us, His people.

Parshat Shmini: Mysterious Tragedy

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Vayikra Unlocking the Torah Text - Vayikra


Finally, after seven days of preparation, an eighth, celebratory day of investiture dawns for Aharon and his sons. On this day, they will publicly assume the kehuna, an honored priestly role to be bequeathed, in perpetuity, to their descendents.

At God’s command, the entire nation gathers at the entrance of the Mishkan to witness the rituals of initiation performed by Aharon and his sons. The investiture service reaches a mounting climax as Aharon twice blesses the people (the second time in conjunction with Moshe) and a miraculous fire descends from the heavens, consuming the offerings on the altar.

Suddenly, however, this exalted moment of celebration turns to tragedy and sorrow. The Torah testifies: “And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took, each man, his censer; and they placed in them fire; and they placed upon it incense; and they offered before God a foreign fire which God had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before God and it consumed them; and they died before God.”



Few episodes in the Torah are as frighteningly mysterious as the story of the demise of Aharon’s oldest sons. The questions are basic and stark.

What exactly is the sin of Nadav and Avihu?

Why is this sin so onerous that it merits the overwhelmingly severe punishment of immediate death by God’s hand?


A wide spectrum of opinion emerges among rabbinic sources concerning the nature of the sin and resulting punishment of Nadav and Avihu. At the core of the discussion lies the fundamental mystery: which aspects of Nadav and Avihu’s actions were so onerous, so unforgivable, that they warranted such immediate and harsh divine punishment?


At one end of the spectrum stand those scholars who, confronted with the severity of God’s reaction, are unwilling to accept this textual narrative at face value. God, they feel, would simply not have punished Nadav and Avihu so harshly over only a ritual-based sin.

A number of Midrashic approaches thus appear in rabbinic literature, each maintaining that the sons of Aharon sinned in a manner suggested by, but far transcending, the straightforward reading of the text.

1. Aharon’s sons die because they dare to determine law in the presence of their teacher, Moshe. Erroneously relying upon a source in the text, Nadav and Avihu act contrary to Moshe’s instructions.

2. They enter the Temple in a drunken state. Support for this position can be derived from an immediately subsequent passage where God commands the Kohanim not to enter the Temple while drunk, on pain of death.

3. They fail to confer with Moshe, Aharon or with each other. They each act independently and precipitously.

4. They long for the death of Moshe and Aharon in anticipation of the moment when they will inherit the mantle of leadership.

5. They refuse to marry because they feel that no woman is worthy of their exalted status.

6. They [deliberately] fail to have children.

Common to these and to other similar approaches is the belief that only a global, deeply powerful transgression, transcending the ritual backdrop against which it occurred, could possibly have merited the dramatic punishment meted out by God.


At the opposite end of the spectrum, in contrast, stand those commentaries who maintain that the repeated testimony of the text is abundantly clear and sufficient:

  • “And they offered before God a foreign fire which God had not commanded them.”
  • “And Nadav and Avihu died before the Lord when they offered a foreign fire before the Lord.”
  • “And Nadav and Avihu died when they offered a foreign fire before the Lord.”


Somewhere within this deed itself, these scholars believe, lies the key to the transgression of Aharon’s sons. Somehow, the very act of offering a foreign fire constitutes an unforgivable sin, a sin that demands swift, harsh punishment.

As the rabbis search the text for clues, a variety of fascinating approaches emerge.


A powerfully imaginative explanation is suggested, for example, by the Ramban and further explicated by later commentaries.

Noting that, according to the text, Nadav and Avihu place the incense directly “on the fire,” these scholars suggest a symbolic interpretation. Nadav and Avihu correctly understand that incense is specifically designed to counter the “fire” of Midat Hadin, God’s seemingly harsh attribute of justice. They fail to realize, however, that every offering in the Sanctuary, including the incense, must be presented to a unified God. Judaism rejects not only the existence of multiple gods but also the possibility of multiple independent components of one God. The delineation of separate divine attributes is artificial, a device used by Jewish tradition to assist limited man in understanding an unfathomable, seemingly contradictory Deity. All forces within this world, both those which appear to us as “benevolent” as well as those which appear to us as “punishing,” emanate from the same divine source. God’s attributes do not operate – and, therefore, cannot be worshiped – independently of each other.

By placing the incense “on the fire,” by directing the incense specifically towards the “fire” of God’s justice, the sons of Aharon challenge the pillar of Jewish belief, the oneness of God.

Numerous other scholars, moving closer to the realm of pshat, focus on the apparent contrast between the singular day of investiture and other days to follow in the Mishkan. On all other days, the Kohanim are clearly commanded to provide fire for the altar as part of their regular functions within the Sanctuary. On this day, however, “earthly” fire is proscribed. God’s glory is to be highlighted by the descent of the “heavenly,” miraculous fire.

Nadav and Avihu negate this distinction. Ignoring the instructions specific to this exalted day, they bring an earthly “foreign fire.” Perhaps, as some suggest, their decision reflects a lack of faith in God’s planned intervention. Perhaps they simply fail to understand the unique challenge of the day. One way or the other, their actions undermine the intended demonstration of God’s power and diminish God’s glory in the eyes of the people.

In a brilliant stroke, some commentaries, notably the Rashbam, the Bechor Shor and the Chizkuni, take the pshat one step further by interweaving the various pieces of the narrative into one cohesive whole. The fire that destroys Nadav and Avihu, these scholars maintain, is the very same heavenly fire sent by God to consume the offerings on the altar. Emerging from the Holy of Holies, this miraculous fire passes by the incense altar. There it encounters and kills Nadav and Avihu, who, ignoring Moshe’s instructions, have unknowingly entered the fire’s path. The fire then proceeds on its intended course to the external altar where it consumes the offerings.

This approach does not, by any means, completely solve the mystery of Nadav and Avihu’s fate. Perhaps, however, their death becomes somewhat easier to accept if we believe that their own actions physically place them in harm’s way.


An additional textual source and a puzzling declaration in the Midrash serve as foundations for an entirely different rabbinic approach to the sin of Nadav and Avihu.

Based on the verse “And the Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they drew near to the Lord, and they died,” the Yalkut Shimoni comments: “And when the sons of Aharon joyously perceived that a new heavenly fire had descended from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar, they immediately acted to add ‘love upon love’ [by bringing their own fire to the altar as well].”

According to the commentaries who build on these sources, Aharon’s older sons are righteous individuals who do not consciously sin either before

or on this fateful celebratory day. Their failure, instead, ironically stems from a spontaneous act of religious passion. Moved by the power of God’s Presence, awestruck by the pageantry of the moment, Nadav and Avihu reflexively set out on a path of their own design in an attempt to draw near to an immanent God. In doing so, they turn their back on the true path of religious worship as outlined in the Torah.

This approach is most effectively summarized in the words of Nehama Leibowitz:

We find ourselves learning that Nadav and Avihu did not incur formal guilt through transgression of any of the commandments associated with the ritual service. [Their sin instead rose from] a desire to draw near, to cling to the Creator; not, however, according to the dictates of the Lord but according to the dictates of their hearts.

[Nadav and Avihu’s actions thus represent a rejection of obedience to God’s will –] of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven – the acceptance of which is the goal of the entire Torah.

The worship of the Lord is based neither upon fleeting moments of personal ecstasy nor upon the periodic, albeit sincere, dedication of one’s soul – but, rather, upon the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, Torah and mitzvot.

Within Judaism, the path towards sanctity is clearly delineated. God’s presence in our lives is assured only through our ongoing acceptance of and obedience to His will.

One final note to this approach is added by the Ohr Hachaim as he comments on the passage in Parshat Acharei Mot: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they drew near to the Lord, and they died.”

The text wants us to understand, the Ohr Hachaim maintains, that Nadav and Avihu died before they could achieve their goal. They did not attain “closeness to God” through their deaths.

The story of Aharon’s oldest sons thus emerges as a cautionary tale, warning against the potential excesses of religious zeal.

One could erroneously conclude that Nadav and Avihu’s actions were commendable, that their supreme personal sacrifice was a small price to pay for the unimaginable prize of a close encounter with God. The Torah therefore emphasizes that Nadav and Avihu’s journey was aborted short of their goal. A fundamental flaw in their approach doomed the endeavor from the start. “Religious escapism” is not a Jewish value. God does not desire the literal or figurative sacrifice of our earthly existence in our search for His presence. Once again, the Torah strikes its oft-repeated refrain. Our task is to find God while rooted in our own reality, to encounter the Divine by living in and sanctifying the physical world.

The Ohr Hachaim’s approach to this event is consistent with his observations concerning the dialogue between God and Moshe directly before Revelation. How fascinating that it is specifically this scholar, known for his kabbalistic leanings, who warns that God is not to be found “by breaking through and attempting to draw near”25 in the search for a transcendent moment of spiritual ecstasy.

Points to Ponder

Ritual plays a central, multifaceted role in Jewish experience. When properly practiced and understood, ritual observance

1. creates an ongoing connection between daily life and the Divine;

2. regularly reminds us of pivotal ideas and concepts that are easily forgotten;

3. forges a uniform, uniting observance that transcends time and place.

Specifically because of its all-important, complex role, Jewish ritual must be carefully calibrated in each generation. At the core of this task lies the fundamental tension between constancy and innovation in Jewish ritual law.

On the one hand, the most basic symbolic mitzvot, such as mezuza or tefillin, must remain constant and unchanging. Their immutable character is essential to the role they play in the transmission of mesora. As the Torah testifies in a familiar passage from the first paragraph of the Shma: “And you shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, when you walk on the way, and when you retire and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arms and as symbols between your eyes.”

The text’s sudden leap from the general commandments of learning and teaching Torah to the mitzva of tefillin underscores the pivotal role played by symbolic mitzvot in the intergenerational transmission of tradition. You will only succeed in the teaching of your children, the Torah states, when that teaching is accompanied by concrete, practical mitzvot such as tefillin.

Ideas, by their very nature, change across time. Rituals, however, remain constant. While a parent’s personal vision of Judaism will be different from that of even his observant child, their tefillin are the same. Shared concrete observance of symbolic mitzvot ensures a continuity of purpose that withstands changing times, circumstances and world outlooks.

On the other hand, newly created ritual is constantly being added to the fabric of Jewish tradition across time. Rites as basic as the kindling of Shabbat and festival candles; the laws of Chanuka and Purim; the standardized prayers; and so much more have been added across the ages through rabbinic legislation and even through the adoption of communal custom.

The balance between constancy and change, central to halacha as a whole, thus acquires heightened significance in the area of symbolic mitzvot. For while new Jewish rituals must certainly develop over time in response to changing needs and circumstance, unfettered change actually undermines the role ritual plays in the preservation of Jewish practice and thought. We are therefore challenged, as we so often are in Jewish experience, to find a way to “keep things the same” even as we allow for change. This challenge is reflected in our own time, as the Jewish community struggles to define appropriate permanent ritual to mark the overwhelming phenomena that have shaped our world, from the horrors of the Shoah to the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel.

We can now understand an additional tension built into the scene of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic death.

The investiture of the kehuna launches, in earnest, one of the primary ritual streams of Jewish history. Finally with the kehuna in place, the Temple service is ready to begin – a service that will serve as the centerpiece of Jewish worship for centuries and as the paradigm of that worship for many more.

At this critical moment, in full view of the entire nation, Nadav and Avihu challenge the system. Dissatisfied with the investiture rites mandated by God and communicated by Moshe, they decide to follow a ritual path of their own design.

Had Nadav and Avihu been allowed to proceed unimpeded, ritual anarchy could well have resulted. At this most critical moment in the development of Jewish tradition, the message conveyed to all present would have been: Creative ritual is completely acceptable; follow your hearts; determine your own mode of expression; the path towards God can be designed by you. There is no need for uniformity of thought or practice as you individually search for spirituality in your lives.

Only an emphatic and immediate response from God could salvage the moment and set the Jewish nation firmly upon its nuanced spiritual path. While allowing the necessary room for individual religious search and discovery, communal rules of worship had to be established, boundaries enforced. The people had to be taught that one could not create new ritual at will. The challenge raised by Nadav and Avihu had to be answered in forceful fashion.

The discussion and debate concerning Nadav and Avihu’s fate, reflected in our study, will certainly persist for years to come. Questions concerning the nature of their sin, the extent of their punishment and the lessons to be learned will continue to captivate and mystify future students of the text. One truth, however, is clear. At a critical moment in our history, God’s emphatic actions preserve the delicate balance between ritual constancy and innovation, a balance essential to the perpetuation of our tradition.

Neither Here Nor There

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish HolidaysBkCov-Fest.indd

Toward the end of the Book of Esther, which we shall read this week, we are told that after their miraculous deliverance the Jews accepted upon themselves the observance of Purim forever after. Kiyyemu ve-kibbelu, the Jews “confirmed and took upon themselves” and their children after them to observe these two days of Purim (Esth. 9:27).

Now, logic dictates that the two key verbs should be in reverse order: not kiyyemu ve-kibbelu, but kibbelu ve-kiyyemu, first “took upon themselves,” accepted, and only then “confirmed” what they had previously accepted. It is probably because of this inversion of the proper order in our verse that the Rabbis read a special meaning into this term in a famous passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a). When the Lord revealed Himself at Sinai and gave the Torah, they tell us, kafah aleihem har ke-gigit—He, as it were, lifted up the mountain and held it over the heads of the Israelites gathered below as if it were a cask, and He said to them: “If you accept the Torah, good and well; but if not, sham tehei kevuratkhem, I shall drop the mountain on your heads, and here shall be your burial place.” Moreover, the Rabbis then drew the conclusions from this that the Israelites were coerced into accepting the Torah. R. Aha b. Yaakov maintained that if this is the case, then moda‘ah rabbah le-Oraita—this becomes a strong protest against the obligatory nature of the Torah; it is “giving notice” to God that the Torah is not permanently binding, for the Torah is in the nature of a contract between God and Israel, and a contract signed under duress is invalid.

The other Rabbis of the Talmud treated this objection with great seriousness. Thus, Rava agreed that, indeed, the Torah given at Sinai was not obligatory because of the reason stated, that moda‘ah rabbah le-Oraita; but, Rava adds: af al pi ken, hadar kibbeluha bi-yemei Ahashverosh, the Israelites reaffirmed the Torah voluntarily in the days of the Purim event, for it is written: Shabbat Parashat Zakhor 5728 (1968) kiyyemu ve-kibbelu, that the Israelites “confirmed“ and then “accepted,” which means: kiyyemu mah she-kibbelu kevar—after the Purim incident the Israelites confirmed what they had long ago accepted; that is, now, after their deliverance from Haman, they affirmed their voluntary acceptance of the Torah, which they originally had been forced to accept at Sinai. Therefore, since the days of Mordecai and Esther, we no longer possess the claim of moda‘ah rabbah le-Oraita, of denying the obligatory nature of Torah because we accepted it originally under duress; for we affirmed it out of our own free will in the days of the Purim episode.

What does all this mean? The Rabbis offer us a double insight into both theology and psychology.

A moral act is authentic only if it issues out of genuine freedom of choice. The Torah is meaningful only if man is free to accept it or reject it. Spiritual life is senseless where it is coerced. “See,” the Torah tells us, “I give you this day life and death, benediction and malediction, u-vaharta ba-hayyim, and you shall choose life.” God gives us the alternative, and we are free to choose. Therefore, if I am forced at gun point to violate the Sabbath, I cannot be held responsible for my action. I am not guilty, because my act partakes of the nature of ones, compulsion. But coercion can be not only physical but also psychological, as when a man performs a criminal act in a seizure of insanity or other mental distress. Both the physical and the psychological deeds are characterized as ones. Even more so, extreme spiritual excitement also implies a denial of freedom and therefore lack of responsibility. Hence, if suddenly I am confronted by the vision of an angel who commands me to perform a certain mitzvah even at great risk to myself, and I proceed heroically to do just that, no credit can be given to me for my act. My freedom to decline pursuit of the mitzvah has almost vanished as a result of my unusual spiritual experience.

Thus, too, Israel at the foot of Sinai was engulfed in the historic theophany; they heard the voice of God directly in the great revelation of Torah. Of course, under the impress of such revelation, they accepted the Torah; they would have been insane not to. The felicitous and full confrontation with God elevates man to the highest ecstasy. But it robs from him his freedom to say no, to decline, to deny. And as long as man does not have the option of saying no, his yes has no merit. If he does not have the alternative to deny, then his faith is no great virtue. Faith and belief and submission and renunciation are all meaningful only in the presence of the moral freedom to do just the opposite.

Therefore, when I am faced with extremely happy circumstances, my freedom is diminished; even as it is when I am faced with a very harsh situation. When God honors me with His direct revelation, when I am privileged to hear His Anokhi, “I am the Lord thy God,” directly from Him, I am as unable to disbelieve and disobey as when He twists my arm and threatens me with complete extinction—sham tehei kevuratkhem—if I do not accept the Torah. God’s promises and His threats, the blessing of His presence and the threat of His wrath, are both coercive and force me to do His will under duress, without making a free choice of my own. Only a demon in human form would have done otherwise.

This, I believe, is what the Rabbis meant by their interpretation of Sinai as kafah aleihem har ke-gigit. They did not mean that literally and physically God raised a mountain over the heads of the assembled Israelites and threatened to squash them underneath. They did mean to indicate thereby that the very fact of God’s direct revelation was so overwhelming that Israel had no choice but to accept His Torah, as if He had literally raised a mountain over their heads. The common element, in both the symbol and what it represents, is a lack of freedom to do otherwise. For this reason the Rabbis conceded that moda‘ah rabbah le-Oraita. Since the acceptance of the Torah was not voluntary, since we were morally coerced and spiritually forced and psychologically compelled to do what we did, then the Torah lacks that binding nature which can come only from free choice. Israel had no choice at Sinai; therefore, the contract called Torah cannot be considered obligatory.

I suggest that just as the felicity of God’s presence is coercive and curbs the freedom to disobey, so too the opposite, the tragedy of His absence, is coercive, and denies us the freedom to obey and believe. And just as when God reveals Himself it is as if He threatened us with sham tehei kevuratkhem, making our obedience mechanical and not virtuous, so too when He withdraws from us and abandons us, it requires a superhuman act of faith to believe, obey, pray, and repent. We are not morally responsible for lack of faith brought on by existential coercion.

Not long after the biblical tokhahah, the long list of horrible dooms predicted for Israel, we read the terrifying words: ve-amar ba-yom ha-hu, al ki ein Elokai be-kirbi metza’uni ha-ra‘ot ha-elleh, “and Israel shall say on that day, because God is not in the midst of me have all these evils befallen me” (Deut. 31:18). What does this mean? The commentator Ovadyah Seforno interprets it as the absence of God, the silluk Shekhinah, the withdrawal of the Divine Presence. This silluk Shekhinah will make Israel despair of prayer and repentance, and this despair will result in a further estrangement of Israel from God. Now, this kind of irreligion is not a heresy by choice, it is not a denial that issues from freedom. It is a coerced faithlessness. There are times when man is so stricken and pursued, so plagued and pilloried, that we dare not blame him for giving up his hope in God. Not everyone is a Job who can proclaim, lu yikteleni lo ayahel, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).

When Elijah will come and proclaim the beginning of redemption, when the Messiah will appear and usher in the new age of universal peace and righteousness, when God will reveal Himself once again in the renewal of the institution of prophecy, at that time there will be no virtue in the return of Jews to Torah and the return of mankind to the canons of decency. For they will not have acted out of freedom, but out of moral compulsion and spiritual coercion. Similarly, we cannot really blame the victim of the concentration camp who called upon God out of his misery and received no answer, who was himself witness to the ultimate debasement of man created in the image of God. We cannot condemn him for abandoning religion, much as we would prefer that he emulate those few hardy souls who were able to survive the Holocaust with their faith intact. For both the presence and the absence of God, the silluk Shekhinah and the giluy Shekhinah, take away my freedom from me. In one case I am forced to accept Torah; in the other, to reject it. Under such conditions, moda‘ah rabbah le-Oraita.

However, if freedom is denied to us in both revelation and withdrawal, if there is no praise for believing in God in the time of His presence and no blame for doubting Him during His absence, if both fortune and misfortune, happiness and tragedy, are equally coercive, if in each set of circumstances our attitude to Torah is considered involuntary—when then do we accept Torah out of freedom, and when is our loyalty praiseworthy and our kabbalat ha-Torah valid? The answer is: When God is neither present or absent; when He neither conceals nor reveals Himself; when Fortune neither smiles at us nor frowns at us. In a word, our freedom is greatest when life is neither here nor there! For then, and only then, do we have genuine options: to accept God and Torah, or to deny them; to choose the way of life and blessing, or the way of death and evil.

And it is this situation, that of “neither here nor there,” that prevailed during the Purim episode. The victory of the Jews over Haman and the frustration of his nefarious plot was a surprising triumph and showed that God had not abandoned us; but there were no overt miracles either, no clear and indisputable proof that God was present and responsible for our victory. That is why the Book of Esther is included in the Bible and yet is the only book in which the Name of God is not mentioned. That is why the Rabbis maintain that the very name “Esther” is indicative of the hiding of God, the lack of His full revelation and presence. The Megillah itself is described in the Book of Esther as divrei shalom ve-emet, “words of peace and truth”(Esth. 9:30). By emet, or truth, is meant the action of God directing the forces of history. Intelligent and wise people reading the Megillah, or experiencing it during that generation, know that all that has occurred is the result of the actions of God “Whose seal is Truth.” All the improbable events leading to the redemption of Israel were obviously the providential design of the God of Israel. But it was just as possible for one less endowed with spiritual insight to interpret all the events as shalom, peace, as a result of fortuitous events helped by the stupidity of the Persian king, the arrogance of Haman, and the wisdom of Mordecai: a diplomatic exploitation of unusually happy circumstances. Thus, the astounding victory was natural enough; there was no supernatural intervention in the affairs of the Jews of Persia. Therefore, the Purim story was “neither here nor there.” So Jews were free, authentically free, to interpret the events of that historical episode as they wished. Hence, if—as they did—they turned to God and accepted the Torah, this was a genuine and binding choice: kiyyemu ve-kibbelu. The first time, at Sinai, they accepted the Torah but without the freedom to reject it, and it therefore represented a moda‘ah rabbah le-Oraita, a protest against its obligatory nature because of the lack of freedom; but now, kiyyemu mah she-kibbelu kevar, they confirmed in freedom what they had previously accepted out of compulsion.

This lesson should not be lost on us in our individual lives. It is often said that in crisis, in the extraordinary moments of life, you can test the true character of a man. I do not believe that this is true, except if his reaction is contrary to expectations. If a man, for instance, responds heroically at a time of tragedy, he may be commended. But if he falls apart in extreme adversity, he cannot be condemned; he simply was not free to do otherwise. The same holds true in reverse situations. One who is friendly and charitable as a result of the miraculous recovery of a sick child may not yet be considered a man of nobility and generosity. He has almost been forced into charm and sweetness by his overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude.

When, then, can we tell what a man is really like? When may he be held morally accountable for his acts, and considered either guilty or praiseworthy? When he is free. And he is free when things are neither here nor there, when he is subject neither to elation nor depression, neither to the distress of adversity nor to the uplift of felicity.

It is in the Purims of life, when we have no clear proof that God is with us or against us, that there is a special virtue to accepting the Torah. Those who come to the synagogue and pray only on occasions of simhah, or when reciting the Kaddish, are doing the right thing. But the real test comes after the simhah or the eleven months of Kaddish—then, when things are neither here nor there, is the religious fiber of a personality tested. And not only is it tested, but at that time the decisions are more meaningful, more enduring, more lasting; for then the act of kiyyemu, confirmation, has kiyyum—enduring quality.

That is why I am not always happy with the famous statement of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that “the Jewish calendar is the catechism of the Jew.” This might possibly be interpreted as saying that the high moments of simhah and the low moments of tzarah define the Jew’s life. But I prefer the ordinary to the extraordinary. The real test of kabbalat ha-Torah is not Shavuot but Purim. The real test of loyalty is not on Passover with its manifest miracles, but on Hanukkah, which is more in the category of “neither here nor there.” What is accepted in high moments or rejected in low moments does not always last the great majority of moments and hours, of days and months and years, when we live neither on the mountains nor in the valleys but on the boring plateaus; when the days in the office and the evenings at home follow each other in dull succession. Then does our commitment have the greatest value, the strongest effect. Then it deserves the highest praise.

Halakhah is the discipline of the Jew in his daily routines. The Western mentality has not always understood the Halakhah. The Halakhah teaches man to acquire faith, to search for God, to sanctify himself, in the hundred and one prosaic acts of everyday existence when man is seized neither by joy nor sorrow, neither by love nor hate. It does not trust the religious experience of narcotic ecstasy, the easy religion of LSD, the attractive luxury of following the guru to India and meditating in silence—nor does it condemn the despair of the man who murmurs against God out of his misery. It challenges us to holiness in the course of a life which is neither here nor there. And when we respond to Halakhah’s call, when we answer with the act of kiyyemu ve-kibbelu, it stands us in good stead and keeps us level-headed and stout-hearted even in the extremes of life.

In decades past, in the horror of the Holocaust, we experienced many a moment when it seemed that God had abandoned us and forsaken us. Now we look forward to the vision of the renewal of prophecy and our manifest redemption when God will reveal Himself directly to us once again.

But now, in between these two poles, these two extreme ages, we live in Purim- type days, times that are neither here nor there religiously and spiritually.

Now, above all other times, we have both the freedom and the responsibility to confirm with all our hearts and all our souls the rousing declaration of ancient days, the na‘aseh ve-nishma.

Let it be said of us, as it was said of the generation of Mordecai: kiyyemu ve-kibbelu ha-Yehudim aleihem ve-al zar‘am, that we confirmed and accepted Torah and tradition upon ourselves and our children.

And then it shall be said of us, as it was said of Mordecai himself (Esth. 10:3), that we shall be gadol la-yehudim ve-ratzui le-rov ehav, great Jews, beloved by the majority of our brethren, doresh tov le-ammo, ve-dover shalom le-khol zar‘o, seeking only the welfare of our people, speaking only peace to all our children and descendants after us.



The Inside Story of the Megillah

Excerpted from Rabbi Lamm’s ‘The Megillah: Majesty & Mystery’Majesty  Mystery Front Cover

Who is the real hero of the Megillah? Of course, if we refer the question to the folk-consciousness of our people, there is no doubt that the answer is either Esther or Mordecai. Remarkably, however, if we refer to the Megillah itself, we discover that the name mentioned most frequently throughout the entire book is that of King Ahashverosh. One nineteenth-century Jewish scholar went to the trouble of counting the number of times that the term melekh, king, appears in this little book. His study showed that the name appears no less than one hundred eight-seven times. King Ahashverosh is a central figure, the axis of the whole plot. All revolves about him, nothing occurs without him. At almost every point we are apprised of the feelings and emotions of Ahashverosh: the king is happy, the king is angry; the king is restless, the king is upset; the king is fuming, the king is drunk; the king commands, the king consents. Even the greatness of Mordecai is tied to the king. At the very end of the book, we read that “Mordecai the Jew was next unto King Ahashverosh.”

Yet, despite the fact that nothing seems to happen in this book without the ubiquitous king, he appears as a man who is feeble, spineless, unimaginative, and powerless. In the ten chapters of Megillat Esther, not one single act of importance is initiated by Ahashverosh — except, of course, his merry-making at parties and his romantic adventures. Even in these he shows no originality. He is angry at Vashti — but it is Memukhan who suggests that she be punished. He looks for a new queen — but only after the young men of his court have recommended it. He makes the decision to commit genocide against the Jewish people only because Haman has proposed it. Soon he gives his royal ring to Haman, thus making him, for all practical purposes, the ruler of the realm. Later he will give the same ring to Mordecai, thus gearing the whole apparatus of government to a new policy. And when he is fuming against Haman, he hangs him only because the idea is planted in his mind by one of his ministers. The Book of Esther shows a remarkable paradox: On the one hand, the king is an essential figure; on the other hand, he is a mere follower, a weakling, a king who reigns but does not rule. He is, in the words of our rabbinic tradition, a melekh tipesh — a foolish and ineffectual sovereign. He is a royal puppet; others hold the strings.

How does one account for this paradox? If Ahashverosh is really a nonentity, why does everything seem to revolve about him? The answer is that the Megillah, as a document promulgated by Mordecai and Esther, was, of necessity, addressed to two separate audiences. Primarily, it was written to and for their fellow Jews both of that age and all ages. But secondarily, it was a document which had to satisfy, or at least not offend, Ahashverosh, his royal court, and especially the official religion of the empire. The Jews of Persia triumphed, they were victorious, but they could not afford to assert their independence as openly as were the Maccabees able to do in a later era. they were still in galut. Hence, the tale must be subdued. It must be written on two levels: revealed and concealed, open and hidden, an outer and an inner story. And hence, in the words of Mordecai himself, the Megillah was sent to the Jewish communities of one hundred and twenty-seven provinces as divrei shalom ve-emet — “words of peace and truth.” To the Jews the story of the Megillah was emet — truth, the real story which they had to discover by a patient and careful perusal of the text. But the apparent story of the Megillah was not the same as the inner, true story for purposes of shalom, peacefulness and a desire not to offend the ruling circles and established religion. In other words, the Megillah is an unusually splendid example of a diplomatic document which tries to accommodate the competing demands of shalom and emet.

Let us try to analyze both levels, both stories. Look at the Megillah superficially, and you will notice that the royal court of Ahashverosh and the king himself are glorified, while the distinctively Jewish religious elements — which must have been offensive to Persian paganism — are subdued and only hinted at vaguely. Ahashverosh was probably proud of the praise of the melekh in the Megillah. He probably regarded it as a public relations coup, as a propaganda victory, as a worthy chronicle for the sovereign of one hundred and twenty-seven lands from India to Ethiopia.

Of the thirty-four times that the word mishteh (party or banquet) appears in all of Scripture, seventeen of them are in the Book of Esther. There is good reason for the elaborate description in the Megillah of the king’s court and his lavish banquets. The royal party was evidently a status symbol for Persian kings. The bigger the king, the bigger and the better his parties. The one described at the beginning of Megillat Esther lasted for no less than one hundred and eighty days. Vashti’s downfall occurred at a mishteh. Esther plans the destruction of Haman and the frustration of the pogrom at a mishteh. And when Mordecai and Esther declare for all generations the holiday of Purim, it consists, primarily, of a mishteh. These constant references to lavish parties, to the riches of Ahashverosh, to the extent of his realm, and attributing all actions to him, these are part of the attempt to appease the absolute monarch of this ancient empire. These are the words of shalom.

For the same reason, whatever there is of Judaism and Jewish religion in the Megillah is only in disguise. Thus, we are told that Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman. Our tradition tells us the reason — it was because Haman wore, around his neck, the statue of an idol. The Megillah itself, however, makes no mention of these religious scruples of Mordecai. A three-day fast assembly is declared by Esther and Mordecai. The Megillah mentions nothing about prayer, and certainly nothing about Him to Whom the prayers are directed. At the end we are told of the declaration of Purim as a holiday — but, aside from more parties, gifts, and charity, is there no thanksgiving? The Megillah tells nothing of this, or of Him to Whom thanks are given. There is only the vaguest hint: le-hiyot osim et shnei ha-yamin ha-elah — to “do” the two days of Purim. Those who know Jewish tradition will recognize that this refers to certain religious practices. But it is only a hint. It is certainly not explicit.

In the same manner, Haman’s accusations against the Jews were no doubt far more elaborate than they appear in the Megillah. The Megillah has toned them down, and recorded that Haman accused us only of being dispersed and “different.” In all probability, Haman told Ahashverosh that the Jews were dispersed and disunited — and that they were united only in their stubborn opposition to Persian paganism. Yet the Megillah does not mention this.

Finally, the clearest indication that we have here a “diplomatic” document with an inner story that is only hinted at, comes in the verses which describe Mordecai’s message to Esther when he discovers the nefarious plans of Haman’s program. Mordecai tells Esther that she must appear before the king to request his royal intervention lest succor come from another place (makom aher) and “who knows, u-mi yode’a,” whether you have not come to royal estate for such a time as this. these expressions — “another place” and “who knows” — are euphemisms for God. The Name of God does not appear at all in this book — strange for a Biblical book, is it not? So that God and Judaism are hinted at, but nowhere are they spelled out clearly.

Thus, insofar as the apparent story of the Megillah is concerned, Ahashverosh is at the center, whereas Judaism is deemphasized and peripheral. It is an apologetic document calculated to satisfy any third-rate Persian super-patriot. Still, the Jews knew the real meaning of the Megillah. They saw the emet despite the attempt at shalom. They did not need an interpreter. For the real story of the Megillah is the one that is concealed, not the superficial tale. And here there is no need to mention the Name of God, for the whole story is Godly, providential, and holy. The real story, the emet of the story of the Megillat Esther, is, as in all of the Torah — especially the story of Joseph — that every individual lives and acts on two levels On the lower, conscious, human level, he makes free-will decisions for which he is fully responsible. But they appear out of context, seemingly as if man is the true sovereign of the universe and there is no God Who has larger designs. Yet on a higher level, all these free, single, individual decisions and acts fall into an overall pattern determined and predestined by God Himself. Here man acts out the role already written by God. The true story, therefore, is that man is both puppet and puppeteer, master and servant of his fate, molder of and molded by his destiny.

This is the inner, real story of the Megillah. It tells us to look at the grandiose figure cut by Ahashverosh, the Persian potentate. In reality he is a weakling, a despicably ineffectual piece of putty in the hands of his underlings and especially the hands of his Creator. He thinks he directs the current of events when in fact he is swept along the mighty tides and swift streams of history like driftwood on a raging river.

Take each individual event of the Megillah’s story and it may appear insignificant. But put them together, and you have the marvelous unfolding of the will of the Hashgahah — Divine Providence. No individual detail seems to make too much sense in and of itself. But when you finish the reading of the story, they all fit into their places and assume a meaning that surpasses what the individual actors could possibly have known at the time they were performing their normal deeds. And throughout the story, the king who might otherwise — insofar as shalom is concerned — appear as the Great Man, appears to us, in emet, as a pawn and a puppet. He plays only a minor role in which there are greater actors, and in which the director and producer is the Almighty.

No wonder that the Book of Esther is part of Kitvei Kodesh, Holy Scripture. And no wonder that the Rabbis, asking, “Remez le-Esther min ha-Torah minayin, where do we find a hint or reference to Esther in the Bible?” answer: With the verse “ve-anokhi haster astir panai, and I shall hide my face on that day” (Hullin 139b). The name of Esther is etymologically related to the word hastir, to hide or conceal. The story of Esther is a story that is concealed within the book. Behind the veil of mundane events, in which man arrogantly assumes that he is the sole master of his own destiny and that all that counts is power and might, God smilingly, but in His mysterious way, guides His universe and directs the flow of history. The Book of Esther is, indeed, the story of hastir.

Megillat Esther, the document of divrei shalom ve-emet, words of peace and truth, is most appropriate to our own day. For we, not only one day a year, but throughout the twelve months, live a life of Purim. We will recall that the derivation of the word “Purim” is from the pur, the lots that Haman threw. Purim therefore means “fateful days,” and in these fateful days, with the imminent threat of cosmic catastrophe, all human beings, but especially Jews, must learn the two lessons of the Book of Esther. They are, first, that we must seek to accommodate the principles of shalom and emet; that it is possible for them to co-exist, to maintain the integrity of emet, or truth, and at the same time live a life of shalom, or peacefulness, as we have explained.

But even more important is the story of emet as such, the real, inner, concealed story of the Megillah. It is that, despite all appearances, nothing we do is insignificant or inconsequential in the eyes of God. Despite occasional feelings of inferiority and flashes of meaninglessness, we are all actors in a great, divine drama. Not all is as it appears to be. What sometimes appears as great might and overwhelming power is often only a mirage in the desert of life. And in that desert, the real oasis is the will of God, and the human aspiration to reach out for the Almighty and follow His ways. This is what Mordecai and Esther have taught us. And that is why, in the words of the Megillah, “their memories shall not vanish from their children” — nor from our children and our children’s children unto the end of time.


Parshat Vayikra: The Man in the Middle

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s ‘Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages’- Leviticus

 Derashot Ledorot - LeviticusThe key verse in our sidra, which introduces the entire subject of sacrifices, reads: “adam k yakriv mikem korban laHashem,” “When any man of you bringeth an offering unto the Lord” (Leviticus 1:2). The Zohar, intrigued by the use of the term “adam,” declares that by this word, “man,” the Torah means neither the first man nor the last man. Rather, the Torah is concerned with the faith, the devotion, and the love of all mankind in between man at the very beginning of time and man at the very end of time.

What the Zohar tells us is that for the first man and the last man, devotion to the Almighty is not an extraordinary achievement. The first man, Adam, lived in Paradise, he had every indication of God’s bounty, and his communication with the Lord was clear and direct. Certainly, it required no great moral effort for him to believe in and worship God. Man at the end of time is one who will have experienced the complete redemption, and who will have enjoyed the divine revelation at the termination of history. For him, too, faith will not be an act of moral heroism, for he will have seen the hand of God acting in history. For these individuals, paradoxically, korban is not a sacrifice, and loyalty to the Creator is not a particularly noteworthy mitzva. But it is for the man in the middle of the course of history, for the Adam who flourishes neither at the beginning nor at the end of time, for whom korban is a sublime accomplishment. For man in the middle of the course of history, for whom certainties are elusive, for whom faith is so difficult, who dwells neither in Paradise nor in a state of redemption – for him korban and emuna are an unexampled and unparalleled triumph of the human spirit (see Ateret Mordechai by Rabbi Mordechai Rogov).

The real mitzva is accomplished when the korban laHashem is offered by man who finds himself in the middle of time and history, his horizons beclouded by uncertainty, his heart filled with fear, his innards pulled apart by anxiety, and his prayers doomed to frustration.

The period we live in is such a middle period, neither at the beginning of time nor at the end of time. We live in a time that the Bible has called hester panim, the hiding of God’s face, when we yearn for some experience of His presence, but we are disappointed; when we strive to communicate with Him, but receive no answer; when we are willing to submit our very lives to him, but we fear that He doesn’t care; when He seems to have vanished from our midst without leaving a trace; when life appears meaningless and existence absurd. How easy for modern man, living in the middle of this hester panim, to yield to despair, to cease praying, to quit believing. And it is precisely because of this that it becomes his crowning achievement to believe despite doubt, to hope despite despair, to continue to pray despite divine silence. It is this high resolve of the “man in the middle” performing the act of faith that makes him a true adam, a true human being.

But I believe that the verse we have just discussed and interpreted is meant as more than a compliment to the “the man in the middle” who retains his faith, and more than an encouragement to continue on his way. I believe that if we examine this verse carefully we shall also find in it the beginnings of an answer to the question of questions for modern man, the man in the middle: How and where shall we discover the sources of faith? How shall we acquire emuna sheleima, complete faith, in a world gripped by skepticism, in a society soaked in cynicism, in a civilization that has permitted holocausts and obscenities known as concentration camps? How shall we be adam in an age which is neither first nor last? How shall we offer ourselves up laHashem when we dwell neither in Paradise nor in a state of complete redemption? How shall we emerge from bedeviling doubt into the fortitude of faith? What advice do we have for that man in the middle who would like to believe but finds that he cannot?

I believe we can find three suggestions that await us in our verse. Let us take them in the order in which they appear.

First, “adam ki yakriv,” if a man “yakriv” – that word means not only to offer up, but also to draw close, to come karov, close, to God. Faith is not a gift that magically appears out of heaven and graces the lucky individual. It is something which requires great and strenuous effort. Emuna is not a state; it is a process which demands study and experience and thinking and willingness and labor and diligence.

In Judaism, unlike other religions, we do not accept uncritically the apparently logical idea that faith must precede religious practice. On the contrary, Judaism prefers the psychological truth to the logical statement, and holds that emuna and mitzva feed on each other, that often leading the right kind of life will bring man to the right kind of belief. It is possible for a man to believe – and yet to live like a pagan. However, if man will live like a Jew, even if he thinks like a pagan, ultimately he will come to think and believe as a Jew should, too.

In the Jerusalem Talmud (Ĥagiga 1:3), the Rabbis put, as it were, into the mouth of God some very bold words: “halevai oti azavu ve’et Torati shamaru,” “Would that the Jews abandoned Me as long as they observed My Torah!” That is, let the Jew hold in abeyance his belief in God, as long as he studies Torah, performs mitzvot, and leads a moral and ethical Jewish existence. For then, having experienced Judaism pragmatically, he will ultimately arrive at emuna: “hase’or sheba haya mekarvan etzli,” the inner leavening agent of Jewish existence will bring him back to God. In other words, “adam ki yakriv” means that man must take the initiative in reaching out to God; he must commit himself to Jewish living, in the confidence – which Judaism promises us will be vindicated – that this kind of life and these kinds of deeds will lead him to become karov, close, to Almighty God.

Now this refers not only to a commitment of deeds, but also to a commitment of emotions. I recommend that you read, if you have not already done so, Elie Wiesel’s Jews of Silence, his description of his visit to Russian Jewry. He describes the current generations of Russian Jews, young people who were never permitted to hear a Jewish word, to learn a Biblical verse, to hear a single tale or law of the Talmud. Their minds were filled with nothing but materialism and Marxism, and they consider themselves good Russian Marxists. Yet, they also prefer to be known as Jews, no matter what the risk. And how do they express this nascent and latent love of Judaism and the Jewish people? What is it that brings them back to the synagogue? Not the shofar on Rosh HaShana, not even Kol Nidre or Ne’ila on Yom Kippur, but the singing and the dancing on Simĥat Torah! We, in America, all too often take these festivities on this holiday in a sense of amusement, as a semi-humorous manifestation of levity. Yet in Moscow, every fall, on this day, in front of the Great Synagogue, thousands of young Jewish Marxists gather together to sing and to dance their devotion to Judaism! “Adam ki yakriv” – these are Jews, long alienated by the strong hand of Communism, who are drawing close by committing their emotions, by committing their joy and their happiness, to Judaism! No matter what they believe intellectually, no matter how they live the rest of the year, this commitment of their deepest and their most cherished emotions of Jewish joy is an indication that there survives in them the “pintelle yid,” that precious dot of Jewishness that, with the help of God, will someday bring them completely back to Judaism and, it is our fervent hope, to the State of Israel.

The first means of rediscovering the sources of faith, then, is to live as a Jew, both in general conduct and in emotional attachments, and thereby return to full Jewish faith.

The second means is by remembering that faith, in Judaism, is not entirely personal and individual; it also reflects the experience of our whole people and its history. That is why we speak of ourselves not as individuals who, all together, constitute a people, but rather as individuated members of keneset Yisrael, the congregation of Israel. That is why prayer is encouraged by individuals in their homes, but it is preferable that we worship in a minyan. The faith that each individual Jew has or seeks can be strengthened by associating with other faithful Jews, so that all together we will find strength in each other.

Thus, the next word of our key verse is: “mikem,” “from amongst you” – “adam ki yakriv mikem.” We can become the right kind of spiritual adam only if we issue from the right kind of mikem, only if we seek our most intimate associations with people who have similar inspirations and aspirations. That is why our Rabbis commented (Ĥulin 5a) on “mikem velo mumar,” that this excludes the willful heretic, that in our Sanctuary we may not accept the sacrificial offering of one who rejects God with malice aforethought.

We have spoken often of the need for modern Orthodox Jews to view their fellow Jews, with whom they disagree and from whose opinions they dissent, with love and understanding, and that in general we must open ourselves up to the modern world and the best of its culture. But that does not mean that we must break down all the defenses that life and nature permit us; that we must yield our most intimate lives to the pervasive non-Jewish influence of the great world around us. It means that we must seek out for our own closest friendships those who will serve to enhance our religious devotion rather than to detract from it. It means that we must create for ourselves the right sort of family environment, that we must seek the proper communal milieu, and live only in an appropriate residential area where we can enjoy the kind of society that will help us in our aspirations to find Jewish fulfillment in life. Only one who is possessed of foolhardy self-confidence can believe that he can survive with his Jewishness intact in a neighborhood or society where Jewishness is either ignored or derided; and such a person stands condemned of committing spiritual suicide. We must know in advance that we will not remain Jewish if we move into a literally God-forsaken neighborhood just because we prefer the social status of certain exclusive areas. So too, we can have little hope for our children to remain in the Jewish fold if we send them to schools in remote areas in which Jewishness is an oddity, and if we let them spend their summer vacations in children’s camps where the word “Torah” is never heard.

The third means to full Jewish loyalty I find in the next two words, “korban laHashem,” “an offering to the Lord.” I base this idea on a discourse by one of the greatest teachers of Mussar in the last generation, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler of England and Israel (see Mikhtav MeEliyahu, vol. I, pp. 32-39). We all know that mankind is by nature acquisitive. Psychology teaches it, experience confirms it, and we know it intuitively. From the moment a person is born he begins to grasp whatever he can. What we do not sufficiently appreciate, however, is that there is another and opposite tendency that is indigenous to human beings: the desire to give as well as to receive. That humans should possess this wish to give is, from the Jewish point of view, only natural. For our tradition teaches us that mankind is created in the image of God, which means that in many respects we resemble the Creator. And God has no need to take from us; He only gives. That is why one of His attributes is ĥessed, love, or the capacity for giving of Himself. The very creation of the world, as King David puts it in Psalms (89:3), is an act of ĥessed, olam ĥessed yibaneh”, and the revelation of Torah is an act of giving and ĥessed as well. Therefore man, created in His image, resembles the Creator in possessing this inherent desire to give of himself.

Connected with this concept of giving is the fact of love. It is worth pondering, says Rabbi Dessler, which comes first, or which is cause and which is effect – the act of giving or the act of love? Does a person love first and then give to his beloved because he loves, or is it perhaps reversed – that an individual gives and as a result that individual loves? That we normally bestow gifts upon those we love – that is fairly evident. What is less evident, but equally true, is that the act of giving itself enhances love and often creates it. When I give of my time and my substance and my talents to another human being, I feel I have invested in him or in her and therefore my attachment and my affection and love grow every time I give and in proportion to what I give. In this sense, the giving is the cause and the loving is the effect. The Rabbis taught us this same truth: “If you desire to love your friend, do something good for him!” (Derekh Eretz Zuta, ch. 2).

This advice is most pertinent for young couples about to be married – or even married already. Whatever you do, do not make demands upon each other! It is the quickest way to frustrate the development of true conjugal love. This is one time that an Orthodox rabbi pleads with his people not to live according to the Shulĥan Arukh! It is a sad state of affairs when a couple must adjudicate their differences by reference to the code of Jewish law. The Shulĥan Arukh elaborates the claims of a husband upon a wife and a wife upon a husband. And when a couple is reduced to legal action based upon mutual claims, they are in desperate trouble indeed. The ideal of Jewish married life is to live so that there shall be no need to resort to the arbitration of Jewish law. Therefore, there should be no demands upon each other – instead, each partner must make it his or her business to give and give and give. It is the only way to transform infatuation into love, momentary attraction into permanent bonds – give your time, give your loyalty, give your talent, give your affection, give pleasure and joy and happiness, give gifts, give attention and concern – and from this there will blossom love and ultimately the fruits of profound and lifelong affection and loyalty.

Now the same principle should be applied to religion. We have spoken of faith, but that is an abstraction. Jews prefer to speak of ahava, love, for that is about passion. More than believing in God, we are commanded to love Him. Judaism recognizes that the love for God is indigenous in the human heart; religion is not grafted on to us artificially from without, but pre-exists within us. The question is, how shall we express it and enhance it? And the answer is – “korban laHashem,” you must learn to give to God. When we give of our time by getting up early to pray with a minyan, when we give of our substance to the causes of the Almighty, such as a synagogue or school or charity, when we give our attention and our concern to Him and His people, then the process of giving enhances the love we bear for Him within. The more we give, the more we love. The person who would like to believe but cannot, ought to learn how to give – then that individual will not only believe, but will also love.

In summary then, how does one become an adam in this middle of time? First, one must commit, in action and emotion, to seek out God. Second, one must provide one’s self with a society and environment of Jewishness. And third, one must give of one’s self and one’s possessions to the Almighty and His causes, and then that individual will learn to have love, which is even more than faith.

When we have done this, we shall attain the status of adam, as genuine human beings in the middle of history. And then we shall deserve, in return, the attention and affection of the Creator. For the Midrash (Leviticus Rabba 2:8) tells us that the word adam has particular meaning; it is “leshon ĥiba vileshon aĥva vileshon rei’ut” – the language of divine love and brotherliness and friendship.


Knowing and Announcing the Molad

In honor of the upcoming Shabbat Mevarekhim Chodesh Adar, OU Press is proud to feature an excerpt from Rabbi Elchanan Adler’s new book Yerach Tov: Birkat HaChodesh in Jewish Law and Liturgy’
, the prayer we recite ushering in the new month. 


Sha’arei Ephraim writes (p. 145):

Some say it is appropriate to know during Birkat HaChodesh when the molad will be, since the mainstay of the chodesh (lit. renewal) is the molad (i.e., the moment of the moon’s renewal), and we make reference to this with the word yechadeshehu (which contains the root Ch-D-Sh). If one does not know the molad, he has still fulfilled the prayer, since the main point is to know the day when Rosh Chodesh will fall.

 In other words, although we observe an entire day of Rosh Chodesh, the true beginning of the month is synchronous with the instant of the molad. Literally, molad means “the birth,” referring to the birth or renewed visibility of the moon. The molad is like Rosh Chodesh’s distilled essence.

     Barukh She’amar argues that we cannot recite Kiddush Levana, the blessing on the new moon, until the moon reaches a “sweet” level of brightness seven days after the molad. Hence, we announce the molad to inform the public of the earliest time to recite Kiddush Levanah. Along these lines, one may suggest that since one may not recite Kiddush Levanah after half the time between the two moladot elapsed, we announce the molad to inform the public of the latest time to recite Kiddush Levanah.

The Talmud notes that it is a mitzvah, a positive com­mandment, to perform astronomical calculations nec­essary for an accurate calendar. R. Shlomo Luria writes that calculating the molad is part of this mitzvah. Hence, perhaps by announcing the molad we partially fulfill the mitzvah. Based on this, R. Yaakov b. Yoel of Brisk writes that perhaps we should announce the last month’s molad and then perform the arithmetic in synagogue to arrive at the coming month’s molad, since this ensures that everyone performs the mitzvah of making calculations.

     Mekor Chaim writes that the chazan should know the molad before he begins Birkat HaChodesh, and he should inform someone next to him of the molad’s time before reciting Mi She’asah Nissim. This implies that the chazan should not or need not announce the molad to everyone. Indeed, Likkutei Mahari’ach cites the Ohev Yisrael as dis­couraging public announcement of the molad. Ohev Yisrael adduced a pun to support this idea, from the verse, “Esther did not tell her birthplace (moladtah).” The word “Esther,” according to Rashi, is phonetically similar to the Aramaic “seihara,” which means “moon.” Hence, the verse suggests that the moon should not reveal its molad. 

Parshat Vayakhel: Understanding Shabbat

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemot Click here to buy the book

Unlocking the Torah Text -- Shmot


 As the curtain rises on Parshat Vayakhel, Moshe assembles the nation in order to convey God’s commandments concerning the construction of the Mishkan.

Suddenly, however, he opens his remarks with the following directives concerning Shabbat:

Six days work may be done and the seventh day shall be holy for you, a Shabbat, a day of complete rest for God; whoever does work (melacha) on that day shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day.





As is evident from the body of Parshat Vayakhel, Moshe’s clear purpose in assembling the nation at the beginning of the parsha is to launch the construction of the Mishkan.

Why, then, does Moshe abruptly insert the subject of Shabbat?

While Shabbat is certainly a hugely important topic, why must it be mentioned, apparently out of context, specifically at this historic moment?



The abrupt, seemingly arbitrary pairing of Shabbat and the Mishkan at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel is not an isolated phenomenon. Earlier, in Parshat Ki Tissa, on the summit of Mount Sinai, God follows His commandments to Moshe concerning the construction of the Sanctuary with the immediate warning “However, you must observe my Sabbaths…” This admonition introduces a series of further directives concerning Shabbat. In the book of Vayikra, Shabbat and the Sanctuary are again connected without explanation in the passage “My Sabbaths you shall observe and my Sanctuary you shall revere – I am the Lord.”

This repeated pairing of themes, clearly intentional, serves as the source for a series of foundational halachic observations on the part of the rabbis.



Commenting on the opening passage of Parshat Vayakhel, Rashi verbalizes the most immediate halachic lesson learned from the encounter between Shabbat and the Sanctuary: “[Moshe] prefaced the commandments concerning the work of the Mishkan with a warning concerning Shabbat – to convey [that work within the Mishkan] does not supersede Shabbat.”



The halachic decision granting Shabbat supremacy over the Sanctuary is more far-reaching than it may seem, playing a major role in the legal definition of Shabbat observance itself.

To understand, we must recognize the challenge created by an apparent omission in the Torah text.

Over and over again, the Torah prohibits the performance of “melacha” (usually translated as “work”; see Points to Ponder, below) on Shabbat. The problem is, however, that nowhere does the Torah directly define or quantify the term melacha. The list of activities prohibited on Shabbat is never cited within the text. Left to our own devices, with only the written text to guide us, we simply would not know what tasks to refrain from on this sanctified day. Shabbat observance would be impossible.

Thankfully, the Oral Law comes to the rescue. Based upon the repeated juxtaposition of the themes of Shabbat and the Sanctuary in the text, the rabbis learn, not only that the tasks associated with the Sanctuary must cease on Shabbat, but that the very definition of the activities prohibited on Shabbat is determined by the tasks that were connected to the construction (and, some say, the operation) of the Mishkan.

Specifically, the rabbis delineate thirty-nine avot melacha – major categories of creative labor – associated with the construction of the Sanctuary, which are, consequently, prohibited on Shabbat. These thirty-nine general categories of melacha and their derivatives serve as the basis for the laws of Shabbat.

The encounter between Shabbat and the Sanctuary, orchestrated by Moshe at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, is far from arbitrary. Emerging from the intersection of these two foundational phenomena are the laws which define the observance of Shabbat itself.



On a philosophical plane, the message which emerges from the encounter between Shabbat and the Mishkan is significant, as well.

Shabbat and the Sanctuary represent two different realms of potential sanctification within Jewish tradition: the sanctification of time (e.g., Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and the festivals) and the sanctification of space (e.g., the Mishkan, the Temple, the Land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem). Through the observance of God’s laws, man is challenged with the investiture of holiness into each of these central domains.

And yet, while both of these realms are clearly significant, when a choice between them must be made, the sanctification of time reigns supreme. That is why the observance of Shabbat supersedes the construction of the Sanctuary.

The primacy of time sanctification is indicated in other ways in the Torah, as well.

Not by chance, the phenomenon of kedusha (sanctity) is first mentioned in the Torah in conjunction with Shabbat, an example of the sanctification of time.

As we have also seen, the first mitzva granted to the Jewish nation is Kiddush Hachodesh (the sanctification of the new moon), an example of the sanctification of time.

While the clear transcendence of time sanctification over space sanctification remains unexplained in the text, a rationale may be offered from our own experience: the single most precious and tenuous commodity we possess in life is time. Our moments are limited; each moment exists…and before we know it, that moment is gone.

There could, therefore, be no greater expression of our belief in and our loyalty to God than the dedication of some of our limited moments specifically to His service. The sanctification of time – the dedication of time solely to our relationship with God – is one of the highest religious acts possible, transcending other acts of sanctification.

When Moshe, therefore, underscores the laws of Shabbat immediately before the launching of the construction of the Mishkan, he reminds the people to remember their priorities. As monumentally historic as the launching of the Mishkan may be; as overwhelmingly important as the Mishkan and all of its symbolism will be across the face of history; even more precious to God is the dedication of our own moments of time to His service.



Another message of prioritization may well be included in Moshe’s words, as well.

By specifically stating, “You shall kindle no fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day,” Moshe underscores the primacy of that fundamental unit – the centrality of which is underscored, over and over again, at critical points in Jewish history – the Jewish home.

Even as the nation congregates for the stated purpose of launching the central concept of the Sanctuary within Jewish tradition, Moshe cautions:

As central as the Sanctuary and Temple will be in your experience, their role will pale in comparison to that of your homes and your families. Within your homes, new generations will learn of their affiliation to our people and its traditions; observance will be taught through example; children will be raised, deeply connected to their proud past and prepared for their challenging futures.

The Sanctuary is meant to inspire and to teach, but the lessons it teaches will reach their fulfillment only within your homes…

Never believe the Mishkan to be more important than your personal observance of a single commandment: “You shall kindle no fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day.”


Points to Ponder

What is the secret of Shabbat? What is the ultimate purpose of this all important, weekly holy day?

The answer, it would seem, should lie within the laws which define the day. As we have seen, however, approaching Shabbat through the law is a difficult task, a path shrouded in mystery. The Torah does not clearly classify the term melacha, the term used by the text to refer to the Shabbat prohibitions. The ultimate definition of melacha, derived through association with the Sanctuary, is technical, with no apparent philosophical base.

Popularly, the term melacha is often defined as “work” – and the logical claim is made that “work” is prohibited on the “day of rest.” This explanation, however, is clearly insufficient. Using the classical definition of work – “an activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something” – we would be hard-pressed to explain why, for example, one is allowed to lift a book on Shabbat but prohibited from flipping a light switch; why one can move a chair or walk up stairs but cannot rip a paper towel.

In his short, classic work, The Sabbath, Dr. Dayan I. Grunfeld analyzes sources in the oral tradition and arrives at the following working definition of the term melacha: an act which shows man’s mastery over the world by the constructive exercise of his intelligence and skill.

We might, based upon those same sources, suggest a further refinement of Dr. Grunfeld’s definition: melacha represents an attempt by man to transform his environment through a thought-filled act of physical creation.

The Torah tells us that, on the “seventh day” of the world’s birth, God stops creating in the physical realm. To mark that divine cessation, we are commanded to cease physical creation, each week, on the “seventh day,” as well.

What specifically, however, is accomplished by this mandate? Why would God commands us to commemorate His “day of rest” with our own?

The brilliance of the Shabbat concept can best be understood, I believe, by considering two dangerous philosophical extremes towards which each of us can easily gravitate.

At one end of the spectrum lies our tendency to develop, to use Torah terminology, a kochi v’otzem yadi complex. Towards the end of his life, Moshe warns that, upon successful entry into the Land of Israel, the Israelites should not falsely conclude, Kochi v’otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh, “My power and the might of my hand made me all of this wealth.”

How easy it is, particularly in our era, to lose our way at this extreme. Mind-boggling scientific discoveries, ferociously fast-paced technological advancement, define the world in which we live. Our mastery over our physical surroundings grows exponentially with each passing day. Never before has man been as “powerful” as he is today.

At the same time, at the opposite end of the spectrum, lies our deep capacity for despair in the face of our “powerlessness” – the moments when, standing beneath the vault of the heavens, we contemplate the stars above and mark our own apparent insignificance. How many galaxies, suns, planets, stretch out around us? In the face of such unimaginable vastness, how can we even contemplate the notion that we are important or powerful?

Much of Jewish tradition is designed to place us exactly where we belong, in the middle between these two extremes.

Tefilla (prayer), for example, reminds the individual suffering from a kochi v’otzem yadi complex that he is dependent upon God for continued health, sustenance and so much more. At the same time, prayer addresses the individual in despair by sensitizing him to his own value. He is a unique, independent being of inestimable potential value, capable of discourse with a responsive God.

Our weekly observance of Shabbat is carefully crafted to help us maintain a proper balance between power and limitation, as well.

One day a week, we remind ourselves of our creative limitations. Through the cessation of physically creative acts we testify to the true mastery of the Divine Creator. We recall the creation of the world on Shabbat and we recognize that only God has the power to create yesh mei’ayin (something from nothing), while man, at his best, can only create yesh mi’yesh (something from something).

During my college years at Yeshiva University, excitement ran high in the scientific community, which felt itself to be on the brink of the creation of life (specifically a virus) in a test tube. Such an accomplishment, many scientists proclaimed, would constitute an assault on the very heavens, proof of man’s God-like powers to create life itself. Deeply concerned, we raised the issue to one of our teachers – a Talmudic scholar who possessed significant scientific background as well. “I see no issue,” he responded. “If scientists could take an empty test tube and conjure life within, that would present a theological challenge. What they propose to do now, however, is to take God’s hydrogen, God’s oxygen, God’s nitrogen, etc., and mix them together to create their virus. That does not make them, God forbid, God; it makes them good chefs.”

A kochi v’otzem yadi complex is impossible to maintain in the face of Shabbat. The observance of this day reminds us that, in the final analysis, only God is the true Creator.

At the same time, however, while Shabbat sensitizes us to the limitations of our power, this very same day reminds us how truly powerful we really are.

Throughout the week our lives are, in so many ways, controlled by the forces surrounding us. Work, school and other responsibilities pull us along at a frenetic pace. Cell phones, BlackBerries and e-mail keep us in constant contact. The demands on our time and energy, from all sides, are overwhelming. We feel out of control, powerless to set these pressures aside.

And then…Shabbat arrives. The cell phones, computers and BlackBerries are shut down and put on the shelf. Work, school and other responsibilities are set aside for another day. Time is spent, at ease, with family and friends. We reconnect with community. We are given the opportunity to regain control of our lives. Our cessation of physically creative acts becomes a freeing experience, enabling us to truly recognize the power we possess to define and control the quality of our lives.

This empowering aspect of Shabbat was driven home to me many years ago through the example of a friend whom I will call “Bill.” Bill was a chainsmoker who went through several packs a day. Come sundown each Friday night, however, he would lay down his cigarettes. He would light his first cigarette of the next week, Saturday night, from the Havdala candle (the candle used as part of the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat).

If you asked Bill at any point of the Shabbat day whether he missed his cigarettes, he would look at you as if you were crazy and say, “Of course not – it’s Shabbat.” He could not, however, replicate this abstinence on a weekday. Shabbat freed my friend from a habit that controlled him every other day of his adult life.

Tragically, Bill failed to learn the full lesson that Shabbat is meant to convey. The true power of this day lies in its potential effect beyond its borders. If on this one day of the week, we are successful in reaching proper perspective – in striking a healthy balance between our power and our limitations – then we can strike that balance on the other days of the week, as well.

The genius of Shabbat, in the final analysis, is evident from its laws. Through the cessation of melacha, this holy day teaches us how to reclaim proper life perspective.

Parshat Teruma— Interpreting God’s Blueprint

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemot Click here to buy the book


As previously indicated, God initiates the creation of the Mishkan (the portable Sanctuary in the desert) with the seemingly straightforward directive, “And they shall create for me a mikdash (a holy place), and I will dwell within them.”


Two linguistic issues emerge upon careful review of the commandment concerning the Mishkan.

Why does God state, “and I will dwell within them”? Parallel structure would have mandated that the sentence read: “And they shall make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell within it.”

Why does the Torah use the generic term mikdash (holy place) in this commandment? This is the only occasion in the text where the portable desert Sanctuary is not referred to by its specific name: Mishkan.



In light of our previous discussion concerning the Mishkan, the apparent non-parallel structure of this commandment makes abundant sense. The Torah does not state “and I will dwell within it,” because God does not dwell in the Mishkan nor will He dwell later in the Beit Hamikdash.

Centuries later, in his historic address on the occasion of the First Temple’s dedication in Jerusalem, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) makes this point clear:

Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built? Turn, therefore, to the prayer of Your servant and to his supplication… that Your eyes will be open towards this house night and day…. And You will listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your nation Israel that they shall pray towards this place…

Shlomo’s sentiments are thus foreshadowed in the Torah text with the very first introduction of the Mishkan, the precursor of both Temples. The Torah states, “and I will dwell within them,” to stress that the purpose of the Sanctuary is to bring God into the lives of the people. Whether a sign of God’s reconciliation with the nation after the sin of the golden calf or a corrective for that sin or an originally mandated symbol of continued divine presence, the Sanctuary serves to represent God’s constant accessibility to man.

Some commentaries, including the Malbim, go a step further in their interpretation of the phrase “and I will dwell within them.” The Israelites are commanded, they say, to build not only a physical sanctuary in the midst of the camp, but an internal spiritual sanctuary within each of their souls. They are thus instructed to create a place for God to “dwell within them” – in the hearts of the individual Israelites and their descendents.


Concerning the text’s use of the generic term mikdash, in place of the more specific Mishkan, a number of scholars maintain that the chosen terminology reflects the continuing character of the obligation. The nation is commanded from the outset to erect a mikdash (a holy place), not only at this point in their history, but also when they successfully establish a presence in their homeland.

The Rambam codifies this eternal mitzva as follows: “It is a positive commandment to build a ‘House for the Lord’…as it states, ‘And they shall make for Me a holy place…’ ”


The Ohr Hachaim derives a beautiful additional lesson from the text’s use of the word mikdash.

The sequence within the sentence “And they shall make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell within them,” he claims, is counterintuitive. One would expect the Sanctuary to become “holy” only after the investiture of God’s presence. By referring to the Sanctuary immediately as a mikdash, a holy place, the Torah conveys that the Temple is holy from the moment that the Israelites create it – even before God fulfills His commitment to “dwell” within the nation.

The commandment to build the Temple thus reconfirms the fundamental truth repeated over and over again, in different ways, during the critical period of our nation’s birth: Sanctity is created in this world when man acts in accordance with God’s will. Man, as God’s partner, invests the Sanctuary with holiness.

Points to Ponder


Two points for consideration concerning the term mikdash:

1. If the commandment to build the mikdash is ongoing, are we not obligated to construct the Third Temple in Israel in our day? While numerous positions concerning this issue are staked out by the halachists, the approach presented by the Sefer Hachinuch is particularly intriguing.

The Ba’al Hachinuch explains that the parameters of the obligation to build a “holy place” shift dramatically with the building of the first permanent Temple in Jerusalem (tenth century bce). From that time on, the commandment is effective only when the majority of the Jewish nation is living in the Land of Israel.

An immediate challenge to the Ba’al Hachinuch’s position, however, emerges from a clear historical reality. The Second Temple was erected at the end of the Babylonian exile, when the vast majority of “exiles” tragically opted to forgo a return to Zion and remain in Babylon. Why, then, was the Second Temple built by the minority who did return?

Rabbi Yehoshua of Kotno defends the Ba’al Hachinuch with a bold contention: the Jews of Babylon remained in “exile” of their own choice. They therefore effectively ceded their rights to the Temple and could no longer, through their absence, prevent its rebuilding.

The Ba’al Hachinuch’s basic contention and Rabbi Yehoshua’s further observation highlight the historic opportunities and challenges of our day. As the balance of Jewish life inexorably shifts from the diaspora to the State of Israel, we are rapidly approaching the point when the majority of Jews will be living in their homeland. Will we be biblically obligated at that point, political exigencies aside, to commence rebuilding the Temple?

Even further, an argument might be made that the “tipping point” concerning the Temple has already been reached. The majority of diaspora Jews today, like the Babylonian Jews of the Second Temple period, live in an “exile of choice” with the opportunity of return to the Land of Israel fully available. Have those of us in the diaspora lost our “rights” to the Temple? If so, should the Beit Hamikdash be built today, even in our absence?

The question remains academic given the political realities as well as other philosophical/halachic concerns. The issues raised, however, certainly should give us pause as we consider the momentous times in which we live. For the first time in nearly two thousand years we approach the point when, after centuries of wandering, a majority of the Jewish nation will be “home.” What halachic, philosophical and psychological changes should occur within our nation’s psyche as a result of this new reality? How are we meant to mark our momentous transformation from a “people of exile” to a “people of return”?

And what of those of us who choose not to participate fully in this new historic national adventure – we, who, yet today, live our lives outside of the Land of Israel?

We are quick to criticize, in retrospect, the Babylonian exiles who failed to return to Zion. How, we must honestly wonder, will history judge us?

Our excuses are many – some, perhaps, more valid then others. But the question must be asked: what “rights” do we lose when we voluntarily choose not to return home?

2. A refrain often sounded in today’s Jewish community bemoans the lack of “spirituality” in traditional practice and worship. Pulpit rabbis regularly hear, “Rabbi, I fail to be ‘moved’ by the tefilla (prayer service)… The daily ritual leaves me empty.”

Responding to the challenge, numerous religious schools, synagogues and communal institutions have instituted studies and programs designed towards making age-old ritual personally relevant to their constituents. Federations have commissioned studies with an eye towards “reinventing the synagogue”; synagogues, themselves, have initiated programs, from prayer services featuring the poignant tunes of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to innovative adult education classes; schools regularly design and implement new curricula for the teaching of prayer and ritual.

On an individual level, frustrated by the perceived lack of meaning in “ordinary” Jewish practice, many Jews find their search leading to more esoteric areas of their tradition. Kabbalists and mystics – some of them authentic and some less so – become frequent visitors to “modern Orthodox communities,” with claims of easy access to sacred realms. Sophisticated members of the Jewish community treasure questionable symbols – such as the “red bendlach” (red threads worn on the wrist purportedly to ward off the “evil eye,” often received from beggars at the Western Wall) – with greater intensity than they do normative Jewish rituals.

While communal creativity (within halachic boundaries) is certainly laudable, and authentic spiritual search is essential to Jewish tradition, Judaism offers no shortcuts to religious meaning. Spiritual “quick fixes” are alien to our tradition. In a world marked by instant gratification, Judaism preaches that spirituality is ultimately found only as a result of hard, continuing work.

An individual, for example, who expects to be spontaneously and passively “moved” by weekly synagogue prayer, without the investment of true effort into that prayer, is doomed to disappointment. Tefilla is neither theater nor spectator sport. Prayer becomes meaningful only as a result of study of text, honest personal introspection, wrenching self-assessment and a continuing evaluation of our relationship with God.

As the Mishna proclaims: “One should not stand to pray without full and serious intent. The righteous of old would deliberate a full hour before beginning to pray, in order to direct their hearts towards the Almighty.”

Consider, in contrast, the hurried, preoccupied nature of so much of our tefilla today.

Like tefilla, all the daily rites and rituals of Judaism are filled with significance readily available to those motivated, committed and industrious enough to explore the familiar. Within and through this regular ongoing observance, we are meant to find true religious meaning in our lives.

Centuries ago, God launched the central symbol of Jewish worship with the commandment “And they shall make for Me a holy place…” Only we, as God’s partners, generate holiness in this world. Only we, through conscientious effort, can create sanctity and attain spirituality in our lives.