Parshat Behar: In Praise of Impracticality

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

In Praise of Impracticality*

Our sidra opens with the words, “And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai (behar Sinai), saying…” (Leviticus 25:1). What follows this introduction is a portion that deals with the laws of shemita, the sabbatical year, when the land must lie fallow and all debts be remitted.

The Rabbis were intrigued by one word in that opening verse: the word “behar,” “on the mountain.” Why this special reference to Mount Sinai at this time? The question as they phrased it has come over into Yiddish and Hebrew as an idiomatic way of saying, “What does one thing have to do with the other?” Thus (Torat Kohanim, as quoted by Rashi): “ma inyan shemita eitzel Har Sinai?” “What connection is there between the sabbatical laws and Mount Sinai?” Were not all the laws and commandments enunciated at Mount Sinai? Why then this special mention of shemita in association with Mount Sinai?

Rashi quotes the answer provided by the Rabbis. Permit me, however, to offer an alternative answer: Although Judaism is action-geared oriented to the improvement of humanity and society; although it has a high moral quotient; although it addresses itself to the very real problems of imperfect beings and suffering society; although, in contrast to certain other religions, it is more this-worldly – nevertheless, this concern with the real and the immediate and the empirical has a limit. Not everything in Judaism has to be as practical as an American businessman’s profit-and-loss sheet or as “relevant” as the social activists and the radicals would like it to be. Judaism may not be ancient history – but neither is it journalism.

And this we see from the piquant fact that the laws of shemita were given specifically at Mount Sinai. Laws known as mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz, commandments whose fulfillment is dependent upon the Land of Israel, were given to the people of Israel before they ever arrived in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel! Agricultural laws were now given, in all their details, to a nomadic tribe without farms, without roots in the soil. Consider what the laws of shemita sounded like to our grandparents as they surrounded Mount Sinai, that baredesert mountain. They must have appeared weird, irrelevant, out of place, impertinent.

And yet, what was true of shemita at Mount Sinai is true of all the commandments at all times. They may seem hopelessly impractical, untimely, and irrelevant to the cold-eyed and hard-headed person, and yet they are the Law of the Lord, obligatory upon Jews at all times and all places.

Indeed, there is hardly anything as irrelevant as the piddling relevancy of the coldly practical person. Show me the man who sees only what is before his eyes, and I will show you a man who cannot see beyond his nose!

What does this praise of the impractical teach us?

First, it tells us simply that there are things that are of value in and of themselves, not only because they are instrumental or lead to other things. Thus, some of the commandments may restrain one’s destructiveness. Others may lead one to improve society or one’s own soul or help the disadvantaged. But some are valuable simply because they were commanded by God. No other reason is necessary.

The same is true of knowledge. There are some kinds of knowledge which may lead to invention and enhance the health of an individual and his convenience. But science is more than technology. There is also such a thing as knowledge for its own sake, knowledge acquired in order to satisfy the natural intellectual curiosity of mankind.

A week ago, Apollo 16 returned from its trip to the moon. Except for those Americans who are so benumbed by the sensational that after the first time a thing is done it becomes a dreadful bore, the exploits of the astronauts kept the world enraptured. And yet consider what a monumental irrelevance the whole project is! The government spends millions of dollars, some of the brightest men in the world donate their talents, three men risk their lives – all in order to study the structure of remote rocks so that we might formulate a theory of when the moon was created and how old it is. “So what?” one might ask. And the answer is: “So everything!”

Yes, there may be legitimate questions about the priorities in our national budget. That is not now our concern. But without a doubt, knowledge, for its own sake, must not be deprecated. The real point, to a small-minded person, sometimes appears to be beside the point.

And the same is true in Judaism. There is the study of Torah for the sake of performance of the mitzvot, or the sake of cohesion of the community, or the sake of raising the level of Jewish observance. But the highest concept of Torah study remains Torah lishma, Torah for its own sake. Here too, there may be a question of priorities in determining the subject matter of Torah. But there is no denying the ultimate and high value of Torah lishma, of study for its own sake.

It was the Jerusalem Talmud (Ĥagiga 2:1) that attributed to the most notorious heretic in Jewish history the opposition to “other-worldly study of Torah.” Elisha ben Abuya, known as Aĥer (“the other one”), is said to have stormed into a classroom, rudely interrupted the teacher, and shouted at the students: “What are you doing here? Why are you wasting your time in such irrelevant material as Torah? You, you must be a builder; you must be a carpenter; you ought to become a fisherman, and you should be a tailor. Do something useful in your lives!” The great heretic was an eminently practical man…

Of course, I do not mean to be cute by espousing impracticality and advocating irrelevance. Total irrelevance is deadening to the spirit and results in what philosophers call solipsism, the divorce from the outside world and experience and the introversion into oneself – and impracticality can become nothing but a semantic excuse for inefficiency and incompetence. What I do mean is that relevance is a good, but not the only one or even the most important one. And while practicality is necessary for the execution of ideals, dreams and visions need not be pre-restrained in the Procrustean bed of a mercantile mentality.

The second point is that sometimes the apparently remote does contain highly significant and very real dimensions, but it is our narrow vision and restricted understanding that does not allow us to expose these obscure insights. Kashrut sometimes is ridiculed in this modern age because it appears superfluous when we consider the sanitary facilities we possess. And yet, those who understand kashrut realize that it has so little to do with sanitation and has so very much to say about reverence for life – and this, in a world in which life is losing its value, in which the approval of abortions is moving into the encouragement of euthanasia. Shatnez and kilayim, the prohibitions against mixing various garments or seeds or animals, has always been held up as a paradigm of non-rational commandments, and yet today we realize how much they have to say to us about ecology and the preservation of the separate species of the universe. The Sabbath laws are meant not only to give us a day of rest, because Sunday in modern America can accomplish that as well. It does tell us that we are not the by-products of a cosmic accident, that we owe our existence to God, and must therefore curb our insufferable pride and collective arrogance.

So, these and many other such illustrations remind us of the need to search beneath the surface of Judaism for teachings that are eminently pertinent.

Third, we must be future-oriented. We must have faith that what is genuinely irrelevant now may someday become most relevant and meaningful as a result of our ability to carry on heroically despite present irrelevance and impracticality. What today seems visionary may prove indispensable to tomorrow’s very real need.

The Rabbis were fond of saying, “The words of Torah and the Sages are ‘poor’ in one place (bimkom zeh) and ‘rich’ in another (bimkom aĥer)” (Yerushalmi Rosh HaShana 3:5). By this they meant to say that sometimes the text of Torah will seem utterly narrow and superficial, teaching very little indeed. It is only when we compare it with another text, in another context, that we can appreciate how genuinely deep and insightful it really is. I would like to paraphrase that passage, switching from “makom” to “zeman” – thus: It sometimes happens that the words of Torah in one epoch may seem to be thin and insignificant; it is only later, at another time, that the same words stand revealed as possessing unspeakable richness of insight and teaching.

Take the most striking example: the hope for Jerusalem, whose fifth anniversary of liberation we celebrate later this week.

If we have the privilege to commemorate the reunion of people and city, of Israel and Jerusalem, we must acknowledge our debt to a hundred generations of Jews and Jewesses who since the year 70 have been wild dreamers, impractical idealists, possessed of visions impossible of execution; Jews who turned to Jerusalem three times a day in prayer; who when they ate bread thanked God for bread and for Jerusalem; who mentioned Jerusalem when they fasted and when they feasted; who brought little packets of dust of Jerusalem during their lifetime in order to take it along with them in their coffins on their long journey to eternity; who arose at midnight for tikun ĥatzot, to lament over Jerusalem, and at every happy occasion promised to return there.

If we live in Jerusalem today, it is because of those unsophisticated visionaries who wanted at least to die in it.

If we can visit Jerusalem this year, it is thanks to those other-worldly dreamers who sang “leshana haba’a biYerushalayim” – at least let us be there next year.

If we can happily laugh – “az yimalei seĥok pinu,” “then our mouth will be full of laughter” (Psalms 126:2) – it is in large measure the work of those who did not realize how irrelevant they were, how impossible their dreams were, and who prayed to return there, thus daring and braving and risking the derisive laughter of legions of practical people who simply “knew” that we were finished, and that Jerusalem would never become a Jewish city again.

It is only because of generations of bridegrooms who concluded every wedding by stomping on a glass, its shattering fragments recalling the ĥurban habayit (the destruction of Jerusalem), and proclaiming, “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand fail” (Psalms 137:5), that today we can defy the whole world, East and West, and say: Never again shall you separate us from Jerusalem, not Capitalists and not Communists, not Muslims and not even Christians who have lately discovered that Jerusalem is important to them.

Jerusalem Day is a tribute to this special Jewish brand of impracticality and irrelevance.

So, “ma inyan shemita eitzel Har Sinai?” – What is the association or connection between the sabbatical laws and Mount Sinai? First, it is to tell us that not everything need be relevant; second, that not everything that appears irrelevant really is; and third, that what is irrelevant today may be the most important fact of life tomorrow. This lesson too is part of the heritage of Sinai. Indeed, without it all the rest is in jeopardy. With it, all the rest will prevail too, bimheira beyameinu, speedily in our day.

* May 6, 1972

Parshat Kedoshim: An Impossible Directive

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Vayikra, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers.


Roughly midpoint in the text of the Torah, at the culmination of the series of vital interpersonal laws of Parshat Kedoshim, lies a three-word mandate considered by sages such as Hillel and Rabbi Akiva to be the foundation of all Torah law: V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, “And you shall love your fellow as yourself.”


How can the Torah demand the impossible? How can God insist that I should love everyone – even a passing acquaintance or, for that matter, even a stranger – as I love myself? Such a requirement seems well beyond our reach.

To go a step further, as many sages note, this demand is not only antithetical to human nature but contrary to practical halachic dictate. The Ramban points out that the very same Rabbi Akiva, who considers this commandment to be “the fundamental rule of the Torah,” elsewhere maintains: “Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”

Practical application of this latter mandate, the Talmud explains, indicates that if two individuals are traveling in the desert and one of them carries a flask that holds enough water for only one to survive and reach civilization, the individual who possesses the water should not share with his co-traveler. His own need to survive takes precedence over any responsibility he might have towards his fellow.

We are thus faced, the Ramban argues, with a clear halachic contradiction…

If the Torah’s commandment of V’ahavta literally means that I must “love my fellow as [I love] myself,” I should have no right to withhold life-saving sustenance from another, even at the cost of my own survival. I should be required to consider his immediate welfare as precious to me as my own!


Rabbinic recognition of the difficulties inherent in the commandment V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha is evidenced in a number of sources.

When, for example, a potential convert demands to be taught the entire Torah “while standing on one foot,” Hillel chooses this commandment as the foundation all of Jewish law. He does not, however, quote the text directly. Instead, he transposes the directive into the more palatable (and limited) negative: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow.”

Elsewhere, the rabbis find concrete application for the edict of V’ahavta in disparate areas ranging from marriage to capital punishment. Their search appears to mirror a desire to find distinct, limited spheres of law where the text’s formulation can be applied without contradicting other halachic precepts.

Can, however, the sweeping majesty of this edict, described by Rabbi Akiva as the fundamental precept of the Torah, be preserved?

Can the text be understood as written, without editorial change and without limiting its application to narrow areas of the law?

Some scholars maintain that the problems associated with the text should be addressed through a simple change of focus. The term kamocha, “as yourself,” they claim, is not an adverb defining the boundaries of commanded love (as in: love your fellow “as you love yourself”). It is, instead, an adjective delineating the basis of fellowship (as in: love your fellow “who is as yourself”). Since all men are created in the image of God, the Torah maintains, all are kamocha, “similar to you,” and all are, therefore, deserving of your love.

This approach avoids the issues raised above. The text is not commanding us to love others as we love ourselves, a commandment problematic in both behavioral and halachic terms. The Torah is instead informing us why we should love others in the first place: “Love your fellow,” who is, after all, “as yourself” – created, like you, in God’s image and, therefore, worthy of your love.

Nehama Leibowitz finds support for this approach in a similar biblical passage: “The stranger [convert] who dwells with you shall be like the native-born among you; and you shall love him kamocha, as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In this case, Leibowitz maintains, the last phrase of the commandment clearly reflects back on the meaning of the term kamocha. Effectively, the text states: You should love the stranger, for he is like you. After all, you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Other authorities, including the Ramban and the Chizkuni, choose another, bolder, path.

They maintain that the commonly accepted translation of the phrase “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha” is incorrect. Had the Torah meant to say, “Love your fellow, as yourself,” the text should have read: V’ahavta et reiacha kamocha.”

Literally, as written, the text before us translates as “Love for your fellow, as for yourself.

An overwhelmingly powerful lesson is thus transmitted by this passage, as explained by the Ramban:

Sometimes an individual may wish well for his fellow only in specific areas. He may wish him wealth but not wisdom and the like; and, even if he wishes him well in all areas – desiring that his beloved fellow attain wealth, honor, learning and wisdom – he will still not want him to achieve the same level that he, himself, achieves. He will still desire to be superior to his fellow [my italics].

The Torah, therefore, commands that the individual eradicate such selfish jealousy from his heart; that he should love [desire] well for his friend – as he would want for himself – without limits or reservations.

Through the eyes of these scholars, the Torah is not demanding the impossible – only the overwhelmingly difficult. Capping the list of interpersonal laws of Parshat Kedoshim is the one commandment that sums them all up: Truly desire for others what you desire for yourself. If you can achieve that level of love, all the other obligations between you and those around you will be easily met.

Points to Ponder

Sometimes limiting the scope can increase the burden…

By placing the commandment of V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha within our reach, scholars such as the Ramban and the Chizkuni actually make the Torah’s demands upon us more difficult. As long as the commandment remained impossible to attain, we were “safe.” We could be proud to be part of a people whose tradition included this wonderful idea of V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, yet avoid its practical implications. We could repeat the words as a litany, admire their poetic majesty; but remain beyond their claim on our behavior. Who, after all, could possibly be expected to love someone as himself? Clearly, the Torah could not be talking to us.

Our escape is thwarted, however by the rereading of the text.

Truly desire for others what you desire for yourself.

This commandment is attainable, albeit with great difficulty. Conformance requires the cultivation of the purest of hearts; a soul that can truly rejoice in the success and happiness of others without the taint of jealousy. It means that a student rejected for medical school must be as happy over the admission of his friend as if he, himself, had made the grade; that a young single man or woman, actively seeking a shidduch (marital match), must rejoice wholeheartedly at the wedding of his/her friend; that an individual denied a promotion must feel gratitude for the promotion of his colleagues to that very same spot.

The challenge is far from easily met, but the potential rewards are great. If each of us cultivates a heart that truly desires for others what we desire for ourselves – without jealousy, bitterness and rancor – we will each learn to rest easy with our own life accomplishments, as well.


Parashat Tazria-Metzora: God, Man, and State

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot – A Commentary for the Ages: Leviticus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

God, Man, and State*

The conjunction of the two sidrot we read today, Tazria and Metzora, is remarkable. The first speaks of birth, the second of a kind of death (a leper is considered partially dead; see Nedarim 64b). Tazria describes the joyous acceptance into the fold of a new Jew by means of brit mila, circumcision, while Metzora tells of the expulsion of the leper from the community.

Yet, these two portions are read on the same Shabbat with no interruption between them. The tension between these two opposites, this dialectic between birth and death, between pleasure and plague, between rejoicing and rejecting, speaks to us about the human condition as such and the existence of the Jew specifically. Even more, this tension contains fundamental teachings of Judaism that are relevant to the problems of the State of Israel whose eighteenth birthday we shall be celebrating this Monday.

After delineating the laws of childbirth, the Torah in the first sidra gives us the laws of circumcision. The Midrash Tanhuma (Tazria 7) relates a fascinating conversation concerning this Jewish law. We are told that Turnus Rufus, a particularly vicious Roman commander during the Hadrianic persecutions in Palestine, spoke to Rabbi Akiva, the revered leader of our people. He asked Rabbi Akiva: “Which is more beautiful: the work of God or the work of man?” Rabbi Akiva answered: “The work of man.” Turnus Rufus was visibly disturbed by the answer. He continued: “Why do you circumcise your children?” Rabbi Akiva said: “My first reply serves as an answer to this question as well.” Whereupon Rabbi Akiva brought before the Roman commander stalks of wheat and loaves of good white bread. He said to the Roman: “Behold, these are the works of God, and these are the works of man. Are not the works of man more beautiful and useful?” Said the Roman to Rabbi Akiva: “But if God wants people to be circumcised why are they not born circumcised?” Rabbi Akiva replied: “God gave the mitzvot to Israel letzaref bahen, to temper or purify His people thereby.”

Here is the triumphant Roman commander, activist, arrogant, proud, and power-drunk. In an attitude of contempt, he faces the aged Jewish leader of this conquered people, a man who proclaims that the greatest principle of life is the study of Torah. What can these otherworldly mystics know about the world, about reality, about life? So he taunts the old rabbi: How come you circumcise your children? Do you not believe that man, as God’s creation, is already born perfect?

But the Roman pagan is amazed by the response: No! All of Judaism – its philosophy, its Torah, its mitzvot – is based upon the premise that God withheld perfection from His creation, that He only began the task and left it to man, His tzellem, His image, to complete. In Genesis 2:3, we are taught that God rested from creating the world “which God created to do” – and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted that to mean that God created the world for man “to do.” Therefore, Rabbi Akiva shows Turnus Rufus the wheat stalks and the white breads to teach him that God has created wheat because He wants man to do something with it. It is God’s will that human beings make the created world more beautiful and more perfect. No wonder that in the Jewish view science and technology play such a positive role. No wonder that religious Jewry has contributed so mightily, throughout the ages and today as well, to the advancement of science and the control of nature.

Therefore, too, the mitzvot, and especially circumcision, were revealed to Israel to teach that people must act in order to perfect themselves and the world, and in the process, letzaref bahen, to purify themselves and fulfill all their sublime potentialities.

Indeed, Rabbi Akiva himself exemplified this great principle. He was, on the one hand, one of the saintliest spirits in all our history. The Talmud, in imaginative grasp of the truth, tells us that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and he saw the sacred soul of Rabbi Akiva, he protested to God that Akiva was more worthy to be the bearer of Torah than he, Moses, was. And yet, on the other hand, it was the same Rabbi Akiva who did not isolate himself in the academy, but became the sponsor of Bar Kokhba, the great Jewish general who led the revolution against Rome.

This, then, is what mila teaches us: “The work of flesh and blood is beautiful indeed.” The world is an uncompleted creation; man’s fate is to finish it. This is the principle of activism. The State of Israel was built by people who perceived this Jewish principle. They were the ones who refused to stand aside, outside of the stream of history, but who actively took upon themselves to rebuild Jewish statehood. Their activity was in full keeping with the Jewish tradition as taught by the law of mila. More than enough Jewish blood was spilled in the effort, and the sweat and tears invested shall never be forgotten.

Yet, this is only half the story. There is an opposite danger. If man is indeed a creator, then there is the peril that he will become intoxicated with power and self-delusions, that he will begin boasting and bragging and proclaiming bombastically, “My own power and my own strength have performed all this” (Deuteronomy 8:17). When he circumcises his child, he tends to forget that a healthy child is the gift of God. When he bakes his bread, he does not always realize that the wheat came from God’s earth. When he builds his state, he ignores the fact that without the divine promise to Abraham and divine guidance throughout the ages there would be no Jews to build the Jewish state. When he is self-completing, he tends to become, in his imagination, self-creating. He is self-finishing and thinks that he is therefore self-made; and God spare us from self-made men!

To help us avoid this dangerous delusion, we have the teachings of Metzora. Just as Tazria and mila warn us to avoid the passivism that issues from a misunderstanding of faith, so Metzora and the law of the banishing of the leper outside the camp teach us to avoid the fatal illusion that issues from faithlessness. Just as one sidra tells us to circumcise the flesh and assert our manhood, so the second tells us to circumcise the heart and serve our God.

The great medieval scholar Rabbi Elazar of Worms explains the law of Metzora and this banishment outside the camp by means of a comment on a famous verse in the Psalms (49:13), “Man abideth not in honor; he is like the beasts that perish.” Man, says Rabbi Elazar, is born naked and ignorant, without understanding and intelligence. But God puts him on his feet, grants him wisdom and insight, feeds him and clothes him and makes him great. But then man forgets and does not understand that all this glory came to him from his God. Therefore, he becomes like a beheima, a mere animal. An animal is not kept at home, but sent out to pasture; he is unfit to live in a truly human community. So a person who forgets God is a metzora, is morally sick, and must be sent outside the camp of his or her peers. The leper symbolizes the individual who acquired self-confidence at the cost of fidelity to God and therefore is reduced to the role of a beast.

Mankind, then, must be co-creator with God. Tazria teaches that we must imitate our Maker; Metzora reminds us not to impersonate our God, not to be imposters. One sidra stresses the virtue of human commission, the other – the virtue of human submission to God.

Indeed, in an insight brimming with tremendous significance, the eminent Italian-Jewish thinker Rabbi Moshe of Trani finds this second principle in the commandment of mila itself. Just as circumcision teaches that man must act, so its particular designation for the eighth day teaches that his actions must not lead to the mere amassing of power and self-importance. Rather, man must acknowledge and reach out to the Creator of all the world. The number seven, Rabbi Moshe teaches, is the symbol of nature. Seven is the number of days in the week, the unit of time which establishes the rhythm of our lives. The earth, itself agricultural, follows a seven year cycle in Judaism – that of the shemita. The number seven, therefore, stands for this world in its fullness. The number eight, however, is beyond seven – it teaches that you must transcend what seven symbolizes, you must go beyond nature and reach out for the supernatural, for God, He who creates nature. Were mila on the seventh day, then the duty of man would be to correct the imperfections of Nature, but forever to stay within it as nothing more than a clever animal. But mila was commanded for the eighth day, to teach that the purpose of all man’s activity, the purpose of his work on Nature, is to elevate himself beyond the perfection of body and mind, beyond the conquest of the world, beyond technology. When man controls his environment, he fulfills the number seven; when he controls his instincts, he reaches the number eight. His technology is symbolized by the number seven; his theology by eight. Mila on the eighth day teaches that man must not only complete himself but must grow beyond himself; he must yearn and aspire to something higher. It signifies not only mila but brit; not only a surgical cut, but the sign of the covenant, a contract with God sealed in blood. It means that if a human being will not strive to be more than human, he must become less than human, an animal: “He is like the beasts that perish” (Psalms 49:13). Then, man becomes a metzora, and like an animal, must be sent out “hutz lamahaneh,” outside the camp of human beings.

Indeed, this is the crucial problem concerning the character of the State of Israel: Is it to be the symbol of seven, or the symbol of eight? Will it be just a natural state, or something higher, something nobler? If Israel will be only natural, a state like all others, a small sliver of real estate on the shores of the Mediterranean, considered nothing more than the creation of the Hagana and Sabra ingenuity, then it has no special claim on Jewish communities throughout the world – no more than its population warrants. It has no right to messianic pretenses. Such a conception places it hutz lamahaneh, outside the purview of authentic Jewish history, an aberration. It is then in defiance of the covenant; it is the way of tuma, impurity. Only by fulfilling the symbol of eight, of loyalty to the covenant of God, of Torah, does it go the way of tahara, of purity and rebirth, of joyous fulfillment of the historic dreams and prayers and prophecies of our history.

This, then, is the real problem on this eve of the eighteenth birthday of the State of Israel: Will it be mila or brit? Surgery or covenant? Tazria or Metzora? Tahara or tuma? Striving to be more than a natural human political entity, or falling to a mere natural group which, under the impress of secular nationalism, often becomes beastly (“he is like the beasts that perish”)?

Such decisions are never made all at once. They involve long processes measured in historic time, certainly more than eighteen years. Many facts will determine the answer, and not the least of them will be the spiritual leadership in the state under the resolute stewardship of our distinguished and revered guest, His Eminence, Chief Rabbi Unterman, may he live and be well. Their enormously difficult task is to be both responsive to their fellow Israelis and responsible to our Heavenly Father. Like the kohanim in our sidra, they must confront all Jews, the perfectly pure and perilously impure. Sometimes it is their unhappy and tragic task to say to a man: “tamei,” “You are impure – you must go out!” Yet their greater and nobler task is to teach this same tamei to return, to bring Jews back into the historic community of Israel, to train all Jews in the way of the Torah’s tahara. It is by no means a simple duty; it is, in fact, unenviably difficult. Our hopes and good wishes and our prayers for divine guidance and blessings go to Chief Rabbi Unterman and his distinguished colleagues in this historic mission.

We have spoken of brit mila in relation to the State of Israel. The eighteenth birthday also has another significance – “ shemone esrei lehuppa” (Avot 5:22), the eighteenth year is traditionally the year of marriage. Let us conclude then by extending our wishes to Israel in a manner appropriate to both events. Let us all wish the State of Israel divine blessings – leTorah lehuppa ulema’asim tovim. May it be a future of Torah in which Israel will accept the divine word and turn to its Father in Heaven. May it be the time of huppa, the marriage of hearts between Israel and Jews throughout the world. And then, having returned to God and to Jews throughout the world, may Israel become the shining beacon of ma’asim tovim, of good deeds and noble living, throughout the world and for all mankind – leTorah lehuppa ulema’asim tovim, amen.

* April 23, 1966

Parshat Vayikra: Chance or Providence

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books


A fundamental question, that has no doubt occurred to many of us here today, is: What is it that makes one person religious and another irreligious? True, there are obvious differences in practice: The religious person observes a special regimen of life, one directed by mitzvot, whether ritual or social or ethical, while the irreligious person does not observe this pattern of life. There are differences in commitments: The religious individual has faith and belief in one God, while the irreligious individual does not. But is there something beyond the formality of practice and the abstraction of faith, something more crucial to the basic outlook upon life that differentiates the believer from the non-believer?

I believe that this is the question the Rabbis proposed to answer in the incisive comments they gave us upon the first words of this morning’s sidra, a word which also serves as the Hebrew title of the entire third book of Moses: Vaykira. In analyzing this one word, the Rabbis found looming before them two great historical figures, each pitted irrevocably against the other, two antonyms as it were. In the word “vayikra” itself they saw, of course, the figure of Moses. Our verse (Leviticus 1:1) reads: “Vayikra el Moshe,” “And He [God] called to Moses.” If you eliminate the last letter of the word “ vayikra,” you remain with the Hebrew word “vayikar,” “And He met, chanced upon, happened upon.” The second word raises the image of the pagan prophet Balaam, for about him is it written later in the Bible (Numbers 23:4), “vayikar Elokim el Bilam,” “And God was met by Balaam.” So the difference occasioned by this one letter shows the difference of two attitudes to God, one by Moses and one by Balaam. Moses hears the “call” of God; Balaam just happens to meet Him casually.

Our Rabbis (Leviticus Rabba 1:13) sharpened this difference and explained it thus: Concerning the “call” to Moses, “vayikra” is meant to connote “leshon ĥiba, leshon zeiruz, leshon shemalakhei hasharet mishtamshim bo,” “the language of love, of inspiration or activization, the language used by the ministering angels”; whereas concerning the attitude of Balaam, “vayikar” – the casual meeting with God – connotes “leshon arai, leshon genai, leshon tuma,” “the language of casualness and temporariness, the language of shame and disgrace, the language of uncleanliness.”

This then is what our Rabbis meant in answer to the question we raised. One of the fundamental differences between the religious and the irreligious personalities, one of the major factors that makes one person devout and another skeptical, is the approach and the attitude to the significant events of life. If you look upon these major events of your life as mere chance, just luck or happenstance, as “vayikar,” an either lucky or unlucky accident – then that is the mark of an essentially irreligious person, that is the mark of tuma: unclean, irreligious. But if you look upon the events of life as being ordered occurrences, decreed by the supreme intelligence of God, and under His conscious direction, as providence rather than as chance – then that is the indication of a religious personality, that is the spiritual language of a religious person, the language of malakhei hasharet, ministering angels. So whether we see life as chance or as providence, as “vayikar” or “vayikra,” depends upon and also determines whether we are religious in outlook or not, whether we speak the language of malakhei hasharet or tuma.

And Balaam and Moses are distinct archetypes. Balaam, the man  of “vayikar” and tuma, encounters God, but acts as if he had merely stubbed his toe against an unseen rock, shakes himself off, and goes on his merry way – unchanged, uninspired, passive, with an attitude of arai. Moses, however, the man of “vayikra” and malakhei hasharet, undergoes the same experience as did Balaam – the meeting with God – but he conceives of it not as a mere accident, but as a call, as a challenge flung to him from the heavens, as a summons to action, as an opportunity for zeiruz and ĥiba.

A Balaam-type personality would have celebrated Passover as merely a Jewish July 4th . He would have called it Ĥag Yetziat Mitzrayim – the Holiday of the Exodus – or Ĥag HaĤerut – the Holiday of Freedom. He would have celebrated what he regarded essentially as a merely fortuitous configuration of natural, political, and diplomatic events. The whole of the Exodus he would have interpreted as a merely lucky accident and celebrated his good luck. A Moses, however, and the people of Moses, those who understand the language of malakhei hasharet, would have preferred to call this holiday by the name of Ĥag HaPesaĥ and Ĥag HaMatzot. “Passover” means that God passed over the Jewish homes and struck only the Egyptians – this was not a matter of chance, but a deliberate, conscious act by God Himself. We refer to it as the Holiday of the Matzot, indicating that the Israelites put their faith in the prediction of Moses and the promise of God. The Exodus was not a matter of chance; it was divine providence. How we look, therefore, upon this greatest of all historical events in the life of our people is determined by an attitude of “vayikra” or an attitude of “vayikar.”

But in addition to this choice of “vayikra” or an attitude of “vayikar,” of chance or providence, proving to be the basic distinction between a religious outlook and an irreligious outlook, between an attitude of tuma or an attitude of malakhei hasharet, there are practical consequences in our own lives as well. Besides being a measure of religion or irreligion, the attitude to life as chance or as providence also will determine, ultimately, whether or not in the entire panorama of life we shall learn to take advantage of opportunities or let them slip by us. Our Rabbis meant for us to understand this when they referred to the distinction between these two attitudes as, on the one hand, the language of zeiruz – inspiration or activization – or, on the other hand, the language of arai, casualness and impermanence. The man of “vayi­kra,” the Moses type, the one who views life as a revelation of providence, will be one who has the capacity for zeiruz: he will view all of life as a divinely given opportunity for self-development and service. He will view the great events of existence as a challenge to which he must respond, a call to which he must answer. All of life becomes an active inspiring series of opportunities which can be seized and developed. The person of “ vayikar,” however, the Balaam type, he who views all of existence and all of life as merely chance and accident, for all of life will remain arai – just luck, bad or good, good fortune or misfortune, events never directed to him nor meant for him, and hence no necessity for answer or response. The great events of life will just slip by him – he will never view them as opportunities and therefore never take advantage of them. What to a Moses is a personal call is to a Balaam an impersonal, casual accident.

Moses sees the burning bush. Had he been a Balaam he would have regarded it as an improbable confluence of temperature, pressure, and oxygen, conditions resulting in the appearance of a flame without the bush being consumed. But he was Moses, and so he saw the revelation of providence. He therefore took the opportunity, seized it, and rose to this great destiny as the father of all prophets. In our sidra he hears the call of God – and gives Israel the opportunity to worship in its own way. Balaam, on the other hand, only chances upon God. He hears no call to which he feels compelled to respond. And so, from a meeting with God he ends up with a friendship with a Balak, the pagan king. He hears the voice of an angel – and ends up in a conversation with a mule.

Moses, who sees all of life as providence, sees two Jews fighting – and uses the opportunity to teach them the love of fellow man. He sees an Egyptian fighting with a Jew – for Moses this is the opportunity to put into practice his concept of social justice. He sees the shepherd persecuting the daughters of Jethro – this is a personal call, a challenge to take the opportunity to help the oppressed. That is how he becomes Moshe Rabbenu – teacher of Israel and the world.

With Balaam, the man who sees all of life as casual chance, it is completely different. The same opportunities are given to him – but he does not recognize them as such. Balaam was, according to our Rabbis, a counselor in the court of Pharaoh. He could have done something about liberating the Hebrew slaves. He did not.

He was hired by Balak to curse the Jews. It was an opportunity for Balaam to straighten out his primitive companion. He did not.

Balaam had the ear of the ancient pagan world. He could have taught them something about real, true religion. He did not. That is why Balaam, the man of chance, never grows, never develops. He dies ignominiously – murdered and despised.

No wonder that the ancient Jewish custom is that a child who begins his or her study of the Torah begins not – as we do today – with Genesis, the chronological beginning, but rather with the third book, the book of Vayikra. It is as if the entire cumulative Jewish tradition told the youngster now beginning his or her study of Torah: At this time that you are beginning your career as a Jew, remember that there are two attitudes to life. The attitude you must take is that of “vayikra” – you must view all of life as a great call by God to you personally. You must accept everything in life as a direct challenge given to you by heaven, as a divine gift of opportunity for you to seize, to develop, to grow with, in order to contribute all that you have and you are to the betterment of Israel and mankind.

Finally, in addition to the distinction between chance and providence providing a clue to religiousness and whether or not a man will make use of opportunities, it provides us with a major distinction as to whether life is worth living, as to whether our existence is meaningful, as to whether human happiness is at all possible. This is what our Rabbis meant by making the further distinction between ĥiba (love, warmth) and genai (shame and disgrace).For the man of “vayikra,” he who views life as providence, life does have the possibility of ĥiba. Even if life is sometimes painful, even if often it seems that most of it is a prolonged agony – still life can be lovely, it can be meaningful. I may not know why I am being subjected to pain, but if I recognize that God does know, that although I do not know its meaning at least God knows its meaning – as Job learned in his day – then that is a source of consolation for me. It means that my suffering is not devoid of meaning. Life still retains its inner worth. Life still is ĥiba.

If, however, my attitude is one of “vayikar,” that it is all a matter of chance, then all of life is genai – a horrible, cruel, meaningless joke. If that is my attitude to life, then even if mostly good and happy events happen to me, my existence can have no real, lasting value. Even if – as with Balaam – I should meet up with God Himself, still all of life can be an existence that is genai, meaningless and worthless. What for the man of “vayikra” is a meaningful emergence from darkness into light, an adventure in growth and development, is for the man of “vayikar” nothing of the sort. For him life is just a dimly lit hallway in which man stumbles meaninglessly, beginning from the great black void of prenatal obscurity and ending in the limitless abyss of emptiness and nothingness with which life comes to an end.

How interesting that so many modern people, who often attain riches and health and luxury, are yet profoundly miserable. For having lost contact with God, they view all of life only as chance and accident. For them life is genai, a shameful void. While at the same time, a deeply religious individual, even if he does not have this wealth and health and luxury, can attain happiness. For that person knows that life has meaning, and therefore, for that individual, it has ĥiba, love and warmth.

How great, then, is this distinction between our outlooks upon life. The difference between “ vayikra” and “vayikar” is truly amazing. And as if to accentuate the magnitude of the seemingly little difference between attitudes, the Jewish tradition declared that the last letter of the word “vayikra,” the letter alef, be an alef tzeira – an alef written smaller than usual. There is only very little difference, the Jewish tradition meant to tell us, between “vayikra” and “vayikar.” And yet the consequences are almost infinite.

Indeed, these consequences must loom before us at every moment of our lives. The Harvard historian Oscar Handlin, in a book treating eight crucial events in American history, speaks of the zigzags of history as “a line made up of a succession of points, with every point a turning point.” Any moment in our lives and in our Jewish history is also a turning point. And it is only that little alef, that seemingly tiny distinction between “vayikra” and “vayikar,” which will make all the difference in the world. At this turning point in our lives, we can either let life turn at will, subject to blind chance – “vayikar” – or accept it as a personal challenge and opportunity – “vayikra.”

If “vayikar,” then history is only a meaningless zigzag. If “vayikra”– it is a glorious upward curve in which man fashions his own destiny in a rising gesture to his Maker.

If “vayikar,” then man sits back like an outside spectator, sardonically smiling at the curious unfolding of events he is powerless to influence. But if “vayikra,” then he remembers what the Torah says at the end of the creation of the universe (Genesis 2:3): “asher bara Elokim la’asot,” “that God had created to make” – that to God, Creation is only a beginning which man must develop, make, and create further.

If “vayikar,” then the world is governed by cruel blindness of chance, and the Greeks were right when they referred to it as “Fortune.” But if “vayikra” – then Israel was right, and all of life and history is merely the manifestation of yad Hashem, the hand of God, about which we can rightly say “beyadkha afkid ruĥi,” “in Your hand, we commend our spirit” (Psalms 31:6).

If “vayikar,” then Shakespeare, in Macbeth, was right, and life is only “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But if “vayikra,” then Rabbi Akiva was right, and “ĥaviv adam shenivra betzelem,” “lovely and happy is man that he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:14), and his life therefore is filled and pregnant with meaning and worthiness.

To all of us here, today and every day, God calls: “vayikra.” May we indeed learn to view life as the call of God. May we learn to accept and make use of the opportunities He gives. May we learn to accept life as meaningful and worthy, so that for all of us life may become “leshon ĥiba, leshon zeiruz, leshon shemalakhei hasharet mishtamshim bo.”

*April 2, 1960

The Mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh

Excerpted from Rabbi Elchanan Adler’s Yerach Tov: Birkat HaChodesh in Jewish Law & Liturgy

Chapter 2: The Mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh

(click here for Chapter 1: Announcing Rosh Chodesh)

Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying: this month is for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year. — Shemot 12:1

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: speak to the Jews and tell them Hashem’s set times that you should call mikra’ei kodesh. These are My set times . . . These are  Hashem’s set times that you shall call at their proper times. — Vayikra 23:1–2,4

Kiddush HaChodesh was the first commandment received by the Jews as a nation. In Egypt, Hashem instructed Moshe that “this month (Nissan) is the first month.” According to Talmudic tradition, Hashem pointed at the new moon and told Moshe: “When you see thus, sanctify the new month.”

The formal act of Kiddush HaChodesh is performed by beit din, an authorized Jewish court of law; only it can sanctify the new month. The court must be composed of sages of the highest caliber, i.e., sages who possess an unbroken tradition and permission to judge from Moshe and his court. This, too, is derived from Hashem’s instruction to Moshe, which utilized the word, “lakhem, to you,” indicating that only people of Moshe’s stature could participate in Kiddush HaChodesh. The Talmud finds allusion to this in the Musaf prayer of Rosh Chodesh, where we recite, “who sanctified Israel and Rosh Chodesh.” The blessing, according to the Talmudic tradition, thanks Hashem for imbuing Israel (through its representative body, the beit din) with the sanctity that enables it to sanctify Rosh Chodesh. Indeed, because of Israel’s exalted status, the judges’ determination of the month’s beginning is absolute; if they find it necessary for any reason, they may deliberately declare that the halakhic month begins earlier or later than the astronomical month.

You – even unintentionally; you – even deliberately; [you – even under compulsion]; you – even if misled.

All holidays fall on distinct calendar dates; hence, the court’s decision of when to sanctify the month (rather than the astronomical cycle of the moon) determines when these holidays will fall.

Rambam expands both the importance and scope of court’s role. First, he elevates it to a mitzvat aseh, a positive commandment. Second, he expands the court’s responsibility, adding that it must send out, and inform, the people what day Rosh Chodesh will be so that they will know on what days the holidays will fall:

It is a Biblical positive commandment incumbent upon the court to calculate and know whether or not the moon will be visible, and to probe the witnesses until they sanctify the month, and send out and inform the rest of the nation on what day Rosh Chodesh is, so they should know when the holidays are, as it says, “that you shall call them [the holidays] sacred callings,” and it says, “you shall keep this law in its time.”

R. Soloveitchik argues that the positive commandment has two distinct components: first, it obligates the court to declare a certain day Rosh Chodesh, for the purpose of offering the korbanot of Rosh Chodesh; second, it obligates it to declare Rosh Chodesh for the purpose of determining the holidays’ dates. The second component, relating to holidays’ dates, is what obligates the court to inform the other Jews of Rosh Chodesh’s date. R. Soloveitchik further argued that these two obligations derive from separate verses. Finally, he suggests that these two components are hinted at in the ritual itself. The court declares, “mekudash mekudash, sanctified sanctified,” to sanctify the month; one “sanctified” refers to investing Rosh Chodesh with its own sanctity, and the second refers to sanctity qua determining the holidays’ dates.

Rambam here mentions the verse of “you shall call them,” rather than the verse of “this month is for you the head of the months.” However, Rambam elsewhere does mention “this month is for you,” and cites the Rabbinic tradition that Hashem showed Moshe exactly how the new moon must appear in order for the court to declare Rosh Chodesh.

R. Soloveitchik explains that Rambam’s organization supports the aforementioned analysis. When Rambam invokes the mitzvah to sanctify the new month, he derives it from “this month is for you,” and here, where he invokes
the mitzvah to facilitate observance of the holidays in their proper time (which includes the requirement of sending messengers to inform the rest of the nation when Rosh Chodesh is), he derives it from “these are Hashem’s holidays that you shall call at their proper time.”

R. Soloveitchik also infers from the words of Rashbam that the holidays are sanctified automatically when the court declares Rosh Chodesh. However, he notes that Rabbenu Chananel holds that the courts must sanctify separately the day of Rosh Chodesh and the holidays that occur during the upcoming month.

Announcing Rosh Chodesh

Excerpted from Rabbi Elchanan Adler’s Yerach Tov: Birkat HaChodesh in Jewish Law & Liturgy 


On the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh, it is customary to recite Birkat HaChodesh. Birkat HaChodesh, as practiced by Ashkenazic Jewry, is comprised of five elements: The paragraph of Yehi Ratzon, announcement of the molad, the paragraph Mi She’asah Nissim, announcement of the day of the week on which Rosh Chodesh will fall, and the paragraph of Yechadshehu.

This book will discuss the source of Birkat HaChodesh as a whole, and the reason that we recite it. In particular, we will discuss the relationship between Birkat HaChodesh and the ritual of Kiddush HaChodesh, the procedure for declaring and sanctifying each new month, that was practiced in the Temple era. After that, we will analyze the source of each element of Birkat HaChodesh, as well as how each element became integrated, in its present form, with the recitation of Birkat HaChodesh as a whole.

Announcing Rosh Chodesh

Early authorities do not discuss all five elements of Birkat HaChodesh. Rather, they focus on the announcement of the upcoming day on which Rosh Chodesh will fall. Indeed, the other elements were incidental to the custom of announcing the day of Rosh Chodesh. (For instance, the Yehi Ratzon prayer was not added until the eighteenth century!)

Most commentaries assert that the purpose of Birkat HaChodesh is to announce when the new month will begin, and discount any connection between Birkat HaChodesh and Kiddush HaChodesh. Ohr Zarua characterizes the difference between Birkat HaChodesh and Kiddush HaChodesh as follows:

This is not a Kiddush, a sanctification, but rather a mere announcement, as our Rabbis decreed to announce to the public using the language of a blessing in order for them to know when Rosh Chodesh will be and in order for them to be careful about observing its laws.

R. Eliezer of Metz notes that we have no chief judge, and therefore our Birkat HaChodesh cannot constitute a Kiddush HaChodesh:

This is not a Kiddush, since we have no chief judge in our midst, and this mitzvah is dependent on the chief judge’s presence; rather, the early authorities decreed that the public should be informed about Rosh Chodesh in order for them to be meticulous about it and about those laws dependent on it.

Shibbolei HaLeket discusses a custom of some communities, where the beadle would announce “Rosh Chodesh” during Ma’ariv leading into Rosh Chodesh, and the congregation would respond “for happiness and rejoicing.” He notes that since this practice was performed at night, while Kiddush HaChodesh can only be performed during daytime, it is clear that this announcement is merely to remind people to recite Ya’aleh Veyavo during the Amidah, rather than to sanctify the month in any way. He then addresses the custom of Birkat HaChodesh:

Similarly, the announcement of Rosh Chodesh on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh is not a remembrance of Kiddush HaChodesh, since we only perform Kiddush HaChodesh in its proper time [i.e. on Rosh Chodesh itself]; rather, it is to announce for the people in synagogue the day on which Rosh Chodesh will fall, so that everyone should know, since during the week people are sometimes preoccupied with work and do not come to synagogue.

The Machzor Vitri also articulates this point:

If Rosh Chodesh falls in the coming week, the chazanannounces and informs the congregation of its set time so that they should know when the holidays fall, and when to recite Musaf and Hallel, and to inform women when to abstain from work.

Nevertheless, some authorities seem to draw a parallel between Birkat HaChodesh and Kiddush HaChodesh. For example, Rokeach  writes, “Birkat HaChodesh is in exchange for Kiddush HaChodesh,” indicating a clear parallel between the two ceremonies. Similarly, Ra’avyah explicitly links the custom to recite Birkat HaChodesh with the ancient ceremony of Kiddush HaChodesh. In addition, according to Machzor Vitri, Birkat HaChodesh enables us to determine when the holidays fall, just like Kiddush HaChodesh. It might be suggested that those Rishonim who state that “this is not a Kiddush HaChodesh,” simply mean that Birkat HaChodesh is not a genuine Kiddush HaChodesh, but it is still a remembrance for Kiddush HaChodesh, and that it is still modeled after Kiddush HaChodesh.

Moreover, Magen Avraham writes that we customarily stand while reciting Birkat HaChodesh just as Kiddush HaChodesh took place while standing. Magen Avraham uses the word “dugmat, patterned after,” to describe the relationship between the two rituals. And, although Machatzit HaShekel avers that “patterned after” merely means that Birkat HaChodesh is a remembrance of Kiddush HaChodesh, this sentiment is still in itself exceedingly significant.

Parshat Ki Tisa: A Sin for the Ages

Excerpted by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


Rooted at the base of Sinai, the Israelites grow restive as they wait for Moshe to descend from the mountain’s summit. Turning to Aharon, they demand, “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us, for Moshe – this man who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him!”

Aharon responds by instructing the people to contribute gold, which he fashions into a molten calf. He then proclaims, “A festival for the Lord tomorrow!” [Note: Aharon’s role in this difficult episode will be examined in the next study.]

Rising early the next morning, people bring offerings and celebrate with food, drink and revelry.

Even before Moshe descends from the mountain, God informs him of the sin of the golden calf and threatens the nation with immediate extinction, only relenting after Moshe’s impassioned pleas.

The perpetrators of the sin are punished and the rest of the nation earns forgiveness through repentance. The sin of the golden calf remains, however, according to rabbinic thought, a seminal transgression that continues to affect the Jewish people in countless ways across the centuries.


No event within Jewish history is more puzzling or more frightening than the chet ha’egel.

How could the people who experienced the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea, the defeat of Amalek, the gift of the manna and the powerful Revelation at Mount Sinai fail so completely in the very shadow of that mountain?

Forty days earlier, against the dramatic backdrop of God’s manifestation at Sinai, the Israelites heard the clear commandment against idol worship. How could they now, at the first sign of difficulty, create and deify a golden calf?

In a different vein, the rabbis maintain that the sin of the golden calf reverberates across the ages, affecting each era of Jewish history. And yet, the chet ha’egel seems irrelevant to our lives – an ancient event rooted in idolatrous practices distant from our experience. What possible eternal message might be contained in what the rabbis clearly perceive to be a formative, instructive tragedy?



In spite of the apparent disconnect between the chet ha’egel and the backdrop against which it occurs, initial sources do view and identify this sin as an outright case of idol worship.

“By worshiping the calf, the Israelites clearly indicated their acceptance of idolatry,” the Talmud proclaims,6 mirroring a position which finds even earlier voice in a passage of Tehillim: “They exchanged their glory for the image of a bull that feeds on grass.” Similar opinions are found in the Midrash, as well.

Some Talmudic authorities mitigate the crime by focusing on the plural tense of the Israelites’ demand upon Aharon: “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us…” With the sin of the golden calf, these rabbis explain, the Israelites do not attempt a total rejection of God. They instead endeavor to couple their worship of God with that of other idolatrous deities. Rashi reflects this Talmudic position in his commentary when he states, “They [the Israelites] desired many gods.”

Even this softening of the sin, however, does not address the fundamental question: how could the Israelites turn their backs so quickly on all that they had recently experienced and learned? Forty days earlier, amidst the thunder and lightning of Revelation, God’s declarations concerning His “oneness” were crystal clear:

I am the Lord your God…. You shall have no other gods in my presence. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor shall you worship them….

How could those words now be totally ignored?

A powerfully insightful approach to the behavior of the Israelites at the foot of Sinai can be gleaned from the writings of the Rambam. In his Guide to the Perplexed, this great scholar develops the principle that human behavior does not change abruptly and that a people cannot journey immediately from one extreme to the other: “It is not in man’s nature to be reared in slavery…and then ‘wash his hands’ and suddenly be able to fight the descendents of giants [the inhabitants of the land of Canaan].”

The Rambam goes on to explain that the full transformation of the Israelites eventually requires a forty-year period of wandering and “schooling” in the wilderness – a period during which they acquire the traits necessary for successful nationhood.

Abrupt events, no matter how miraculous and awe-inspiring, do not carry the power to make fundamental changes to human nature. True behavioral change is gradual. In spite of all they had seen and experienced, the Israelites standing at the foot of Sinai were unable to make the leap beyond their idolatrous origins. Battered by the fearful forces surrounding them, bewildered by Moshe’s apparent disappearance, they return to the comfort of the familiar – and create an idol of gold.

The actions of the Israelites at the foot of Sinai are understandable and instructive, Nehama Leibowitz maintains, as she poignantly outlines the lessons to be learned:

Therefore we should not be astonished – but should, rather, learn and take to heart [my italics] – that thousands of individuals from among those who stood at the base of the mountain and heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire, forty days later created the golden calf.

A one-time proclamation will not change man…even a clear Divine Revelation will not turn him from idolatry to the worship of God.

Only prolonged exposure to a life of Torah and mitzvot…surrounding an individual on all sides – ordering his days, nights, weekdays and festivals; his life within the home and his existence outside; his dealings with his family and his interactions with others; his toil at home and his labor in the field; guiding him day by day, hour by hour – only such immersion will change a person and guard him from sliding back into the depths of darkness.”


In stark contrast to those who view the actions of the Israelites at Sinai as classically idolatrous, numerous scholars offer radically different approaches to the chet ha’egel.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, for example, maintains that the Israelites are actually motivated by a desire to worship God effectively. Reared among religions that make extensive use of physical images, the Israelites feel unable to approach their God in the absence of a tangible symbol towards which to focus their devotion. The people fully expect that Moshe, with his descent from Mount Sinai, will bring such a symbol: the Tablets of Testimony (inscribed with the Ten Declarations). When they conclude that Moshe has failed to return with the tablets, the Israelites turn to Aharon and demand a substitute.

Rabbi Yehuda goes on to explain that the nation’s transgression lies not in their fundamental intent or assumptions, but in their methods. Symbols are certainly critical to Judaism, as can be seen from the extensive use of symbolic ritual in the building and operation of the Mishkan (see Teruma 4). Only symbols that flow from God’s law, however, are acceptable. The Israelites have no right to devise and create their own mechanism through which to approach God. Their sin can be compared, says Rabbi Yehuda, to an individual who enters a doctor’s dispensary and prescribes drugs – thereby killing the patients who would have been saved had they been given the proper dosage by the doctor himself.

Numerous later authorities follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s interpretation, some with attribution and some without.In his work the Beis Halevi, Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik offers a slightly variant approach. The Israelites know that the ritual service will be performed by a specific individual, Aharon, and will be conducted in a specific location, the Mishkan. They therefore believe that they have the right to create their own “Tabernacle” as they see fit. They fail to realize, however, that each detail of the Sanctuary is purposeful, filled with divinely ordained mystery and meaning.

Other commentaries, including the Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, focus on the wording of the Israelites’ demand of Aharon: “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us, for Moshe – this man who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him!

The Israelites, they say, are not attempting to replace God. They are, instead, attempting to replace Moshe. Deeply frightened by Moshe’s apparent disappearance (their fear exaggerated, the rabbis say, by an error they make in computing the days of Moshe’s absence), the people feel unable to approach God without the benefit of the only leader they have known. They therefore demand of Aharon that he create a new “leader.”

The sin of the Israelites, says Hirsch, lies in the “erroneous idea that man can make, may make, must make a ‘Moses’ for himself…” The grave error in their thinking is their belief that in order to bridge the unimaginable chasm between man and the Divine, an intermediary is required. This suggestion is diametrically opposed to the fundamental Jewish belief in man’s ability to forge his own direct and personal relationship with God.

[Note: As will be explained in the next study, Hirsch maintains that while the nation’s initial intent is not idolatrous, they quickly and inexorably do descend into actual idol worship.]


Finally, a puzzling passage rooted in the aftermath of the chet ha’egel may well provide the key towards a concrete understanding of the sin and its continuing relevance to our lives.

After punishing the perpetrators of the crime, God turns to Moshe and says:

Go, rise up from here, and the people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt – to the land which I promised to Avraham, Yitzchak and to Yaakov…. And I will send before you an angel, and I will drive out the Cana’ani, the Emori, the Chitti, the Perizi, the Chivi, and the Yevusi [the nations inhabiting the land of Canaan] – to a land flowing with milk and honey, for I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.

The Israelites’ reaction to this news is swift and emphatic:

“And the people heard this bad tiding and they fell into mourning…”

At first glance, this interchange is bewildering.

What exactly is the nature of God’s threat? He maintains that He will not “go up among the people.” And yet, what will be the practical impact of His absence? Everything seems, on a concrete level, to stay the same! God’s angel will go before the nation, the people will enter the land of Canaan, the current inhabitants of the land will be driven out…

What, then, exactly is the problem?

Furthermore, why does the nation respond so powerfully by descending into “mourning”? Given the possible eventualities that could have resulted from the sin of the golden calf, the news delivered by God to Moshe does not seem so devastating.

The answer to these questions lies in understanding that God, intent upon educating the people to the nature of their failing, responds to the nation’s sin “measure for measure.” In effect, He says to the people: Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it!

From the very beginning of Revelation, the Israelites consistently respond to God’s presence with a desperate desire for “distance.” Awed by the overwhelming scene accompanying the Ten Declarations, the people’s reaction is clear – retreat:

And the entire people saw the thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain and they trembled and stood from afar. And they said to Moshe, “You speak with us and we will listen; and let not God speak with us, lest we die.”

As we have noted before (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3, Approaches D), this reaction stands in stark contrast to the nation’s response just a few weeks earlier after the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea. There, on the banks of that sea, the revelation of God’s power is greeted with song and dancing, not with fear and retreat.23 Why do the people react so differently now?

The Israelites are responding to two very different messages from God.

The message at the Reed Sea is “God will take care of you.”

The message of Sinai is “God demands from you.”

Faced with demands upon their behavior from a thinking God, the people opt for personal comfort rather than self-confrontation. They desperately seek distance from God and from His demands by insisting that Moshe speak in their stead.
And when, forty days later, Moshe apparently fails to return from the summit of the mountain at the expected time – and the people face the fact that they will now be required to interact with God directly, without the benefit of Moshe as their intermediary – this desperate desire for distance from God becomes an overwhelming fear. The Israelites create a golden calf to take Moshe’s place, to stand between them and their Creator.

Now, in the devastating aftermath of that crime, God responds to the nation’s failing. He turns to the people and says, “I will send before you an angel…” If it’s distance you want, it’s distance you will get.

“For I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.” After all, you are right. If I remain close to you, you will be vulnerable. Therefore, I grant you your wish… You will achieve your national destiny but I will not be there with as you reach your goals.

The question, however, remains: why is God’s absence a problem if the nation’s concrete goals will all eventually be met?

To understand, we must take a step back to recognize that the parameters which define our relationship with God often mirror the universal rules which govern interpersonal relationships.

Inevitably, the closer we grow emotionally to those around us, the more vulnerable we become. The possibility of personal pain increases geometrically as we open our lives to others. Conversely, safety is found in emotional “distance.” An individual who goes through life avoiding close relationships effectively lives in “safety” – immune from potential heartache and pain.

And yet, such an individual never knows the deep beauty that is possible with closeness to another. Absent from his life are the wonders of true friendship and love. In his desire for “safety,” this individual misses out on the very phenomenon that makes life truly worthwhile, the splendor that results when one heart touches another.

Here, then, is the essence of God’s threat. I will be absent from your lives. You will be safe, as you avoid the vulnerability that would inevitably accompany My close connection with you, but you will also miss out on the potential grandeur that would have resulted.

In response, the nation mourns. For now they understand their fatal error. The distant relationship from God which they had so desperately craved might well be safe, but it is also empty; and that emptiness confronts them in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. Moshe is forced to plead with God that He return to the people – until God ultimately relents.

God’s actions following the chet ha’egel thus prove to be supremely educative, as He forces the nation to squarely face the failure that resulted from their deep-seated fear. Even more, God’s response crystallizes the eternal significance of this seminal sin.As He demanded of the Israelites at Sinai, God demands of us that we create a close relationship with Him in our lives – that we each risk our “safe” existence by drawing near to Him and to His Torah. Over and over
again, we pull away, afraid that too much closeness with the Divine will upset our comfortable lives, afraid that we will be challenged to examine our decisions and actions…

And, when we pull away, we once again create the golden calf.

Points to Ponder

What does it mean to draw close to God – near enough to the fire of Sinai to feel the heat?

While the answers are potentially manifold, one clear manifestation of the tug of Sinai and of our resistance to that pull was driven home to me many years ago.

I had served as rabbi in a Modern Orthodox congregation for a few years, when a congregant approached me with upsetting news: “Do you know, Rabbi, that many of our congregants rationalize and ‘eat out’ certain foods in non-kosher diners? In fact, things have gotten so bad that those of us who want to patronize only kosher establishments feel pressured to relent in order to maintain our friendships.”

Deeply disturbed, I dedicated my next Shabbat sermon to the topic of kashrut, outlining in clear, practical terms the halachic problems of eating even dairy foods in non-kosher restaurants.

I was totally unprepared for the resulting uproar. An avalanche of comments followed my presentation, including:

“Rabbi, don’t you have more important things to speak about?”

“What right does the Rabbi have to tell us where to eat?”

“The Rabbi is only upset that we didn’t invite him to the party at the Italian restaurant.”

And even, bewilderingly: “The Rabbi didn’t say that the food isn’t kosher. He only said that it is treif [the Yiddish term for non-kosher]. If he really meant that it isn’t kosher, he would have said it isn’t kosher.”

The next week, I delivered a second sermon in which I revisited the issue. After humorously reviewing the reactions to my first presentation, I made a simple point: “What you eat,” I said, “is your business. At the very
least, however, be both knowledgeable and honest. If you intend to eat at the diner tonight, then don’t rationalize; don’t call the food that you will eat kosher. Admit to yourself, ‘Tonight I am going to eat treif. ’ If, upon that admission, you still want to go to the diner, go right ahead.”

By all accounts, this second sermon had measurable impact.

More importantly, however, the experience underscored a fundamental truth about our relationship to Judaism.

Most of us choose to practice comfortable as opposed to confrontational Judaism (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3, Points to Ponder). We prefer “distance” from the demands of our tradition. Hiding behind rote ritual and habitual observance, we adhere to a religious structure that does not challenge our lives or test our commitments.

The members of my community reacted so strongly because I had touched a raw nerve. As long as I spoke about issues that demanded no change on their part, they did not object. As soon as I raised a concern, however, that directly challenged their ongoing behavior, a firestorm erupted.

My congregants and I relearned an important lesson on those Shabbatot. For Jewish belief to be a valuable component of our lives we must allow that belief to challenge and shape our existence. A dean of the American rabbinate, Rabbi Leo Jung, is quoted as having said, “The job of the rabbi is to comfort the afflicted – and to afflict the comfortable.” In truth, that is not only the job of the rabbi, but the job of Judaism itself.

As God taught the Israelites centuries ago at Sinai: comfortable Judaism eventually becomes, like every “distant” relationship, meaningless and empty. Only confrontational Judaism – only drawing near enough to God to risk change and growth – adds real meaning to our lives.

Parshat Ki Tissa: What About Aharon?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


When Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the first set of Tablets of Testimony, he leaves his brother Aharon, together with Chur, in charge of the people. Nearly forty full days later, the Israelites grow restless over Moshe’s prolonged absence and confront Aharon with the demand: “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us, for Moshe – this man who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him!”

In response, Aharon directs the people to “Remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me.”

Aharon then takes the gold which he receives, fashions it with an engraving tool into a molten calf and proclaims: “A festival for the Lord tomorrow!”

When Moshe descends the mountain, he confronts Aharon and exclaims: “What has this people done to you that you brought upon it such a grievous sin?”

Aharon responds by pleading with his brother: “Let not my master be angry, you know that this people is disposed towards evil.”

Aharon then recounts the nation’s demand and closes with the statement: “And I said to them, ‘Who has gold?’ They removed it and gave it to me, I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged .”


Aharon’s behavior seems unconscionable!

Why does Moshe’s brother apparently fail so miserably in his leadership role at the foot of Sinai?

Why does Aharon accede to the nation’s demand without argument and create the golden calf ? Should he not have attempted to dissuade the people from their ill-advised, destructive path?

When confronted by Moshe, how can Aharon defend his actions with the strange claim: “I threw it [the gold] into the fire, and this calf emerged”? The text clearly states that Aharon deliberately “fashioned” the gold which he received into a molten calf.

In the aftermath of the chet ha’egel, the active perpetrators are executed and the entire nation is threatened with serious punishment. Aharon seems to escape, however, with only a reprimand. Even more, he continues to serve for forty years as High Priest and as partner with Moshe in the leadership of the people. How is this equitable?


At face value, the textual evidence against Aharon seems overwhelming. At the same time, however, it is inconceivable that Aharon could be guilty of, at worst, involvement in the serious crime of idolatry and, at best, a misguided attempt to create an intermediary between God and the people – and escape unscathed. In the face of this overwhelming puzzle, a wide range of opinion emerges among the commentaries concerning the intentions and actions of this biblical hero at this critical moment of his career.


Rashi, for example, who elsewhere defends biblical figures in the face of apparent wrongdoing (see Toldot 4, Approaches B), strenuously works to defend Aharon in this difficult circumstance, as well. He quotes a series of Midrashic traditions, each of which offers a different rationale for Aharon’s behavior.

First, mirroring the position found in the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi claims that Aharon is simply stalling for time. Fully confident that Moshe will shortly return, Aharon deliberately reacts to the people’s demands by directing them to contribute “the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters.” Aharon calculates that the women and children’s reluctance to part with their cherished jewelry will delay the process long enough for Moshe to descend the mountain (the Midrash actually goes a step further by suggesting that Aharon knows that the women, more righteous than the men, will be unwilling to participate in the chet ha’egel ). Aharon underestimates, however, the zealous desire of the perpetrators. When the women refuse to participate, the men immediately contribute their own jewelry towards the project.

Rashi cites a second Midrashic tradition which even maintains that Aharon never actually fashions the golden calf, at all. As soon as Aharon throws the gold into the fire, sorcerers from among the “mixed multitude” who fled Egypt with the Israelites magically cause the golden calf to form. Aharon is thus able to later claim, “I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged.”

Further in the narrative, Rashi notes a series of Midrashic observations on the phrase “And Aharon saw and he built an altar before it [the golden calf].” What is it, the Midrash Rabba asks, that “Aharon saw”?

  1. Aharon “saw” the fate of Chur. This tradition is based on Chur’s mysterious disappearance. When Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the first set of tablets he appoints Aharon and Chur to lead the nation in his absence. Chur, however, suddenly and completely vanishes from the scene and is not mentioned again. The Midrash explains that Chur actively objects to the creation of the golden calf and is killed by the people. After witnessing Chur’s fate, Aharon decides to deal with the nation’s demands differently. [The Midrash actually goes a step further and suggests that Aharon is not motivated by concern for his own safety but by fear for the nation. He believes that upon killing both a prophet (Chur) and a priest (Aharon), the people will become totally irredeemable.]
  2. Aharon saw the possibility of assuming responsibility. It is preferable, Aharon reasons, that I build the altar rather than the people. I will then be responsible for the crime rather than they.
  3. Aharon saw an additional possibility for delay. Aharon realizes that if he allows the nation to build the altar as a group they will do so quickly. He therefore determines to build it himself, continuing to delay the process in the hope that Moshe will return.

Finally, on the basis of pshat, Rashi defends Aharon through a careful reading of Aharon’s proclamation after he builds the altar: “A festival for the Lord tomorrow!” Firstly, Aharon further delays the nation’s celebration until the next day. Secondly, Aharon uses the term A-do-nai (Lord), the title reserved for the God of Israel. Aharon’s heart, claims Rashi, is directed at all times towards heaven. He is certain that Moshe will return and that the morrow’s celebration will truly be “for the Lord.”


So difficult are the issues surrounding Aharon’s role in the chet ha’egel that many of those commentaries who normally eschew Midrashic interpretation, in favor of a rational approach to the text, in this case adopt elements of the Midrash in their interpretations.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, for example, accepts as a given the Midrashic view that Aharon’s main goal is delay. Rooting his position in the text, however, Hirsch notes that the very wording of Aharon’s request for gold indicates an expectation of reluctance on the part of the people. In addition, the Torah’s step-by-step description of the creation of the golden calf mirrors Aharon’s slow, methodical response to the people’s demands.

Other pashtanim (commentaries who adhere to the pshat of the text), such as the Rashbam, are conspicuously silent on the issue of Aharon’s role in the chet ha’egel, offering no explanation or excuse for Aharon’s actions.


Some commentaries are able to mitigate Aharon’s behavior through their acceptance of a less onerous approach to the entire episode of the golden calf. As we have noted (see Ki Tissa 2, Approaches B), the Ramban and Ibn Ezra maintain that the Israelites’ intent was not fundamentally idolatrous. Frightened by Moshe’s apparent disappearance, the people demand the appointment (or the creation) of a new leader to take his place. Aharon feels that this request, while misguided, is not totally evil. He therefore determines to “play along” until Moshe returns.

Chizkuni, while adopting the same approach to the sin, offers a fasci-nating alternative insight into Aharon’s reasoning: Aharon rationalizes, The people are asking for a new leader. If I appoint another individual to leadership, when Moshe returns and that individual refuses to relinquish his power, deep division will result within the nation. If, on the other hand, I refuse completely, the people will appoint their own leader and even greater strife will ensue. Finally, if I accept the leadership myself, friction will develop between me and my brother. I will, therefore, occupy the people with various activities, none of which will have any real impact, until Moshe returns.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch is among those commentaries who paint a picture of developing disaster, as things proceed “from bad to worse.” Aharon recognizes that the nation’s original request is not idolatrous. He also realizes, however, that a thin line separates the people’s initial intent from true idolatrous practice. If he resists and is killed for his efforts, he rationalizes, the people will, “over his dead body…give themselves up to their folly with still greater unrestrained license.”Aharon, therefore, both delays the process and attempts to limit the severity of the crime. On the next day, however, “Aharon sees” that the nation “has already passed across the narrow bridge from the notion of a divine intermediary to that of a real god.” In spite of Aharon’s attempts to forestall complete tragedy, the nation falls into idolatry.


Finally, no analysis of Aharon’s actions in conjunction with the sin of the golden calf would be complete without acknowledging the context to this situation, shaped by Aharon’s personality. As we have previously explained (see Shmot 5, Approaches D; Mishpatim 4, Approaches B3; Tetzave 2, Approaches E2), Aharon is a behavioral “photographic negative” of his brother. Whereas Moshe is direct and blunt almost to the point of being undiplomatic, Aharon is a soft compromiser who desires nothing more than harmony within the nation. How telling that the failures of each of these brothers take place at the extremes of their personalities. Moshe will lose his leadership at Mei Meriva, where, moved to anger by the people’s demand for water, he will strike a rock rather than fulfill God’s command by speaking to it. Aharon’s low point of leadership occurs here, at the foot of Sinai, as the great compromiser compromises once too often . We cannot excuse Aharon’s behavior, but, given his personality, we can understand.


When all is said and done, the issue of Aharon’s involvement in the chet ha’egel is one of those cases where the questions are better than the answers. In such circumstances we are challenged to continue the search for understanding – even as we acknowledge that we may never know the “real truth” until God sees fit to reveal it.

Purim: Remember to Forget

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith


Memory and forgetfulness are subjects for study by psychologists, neurologists, and cyberneticians. It is for them to learn and explain the “how” of these processes, the mechanisms, the dynamics.

But these themes are also the substance of spiritual life. Many commandments of the Torah refer to remembering and forgetting. We are commanded to remember, amongst other things: the Sabbath; the day we left the Land of Egypt; what the Lord did to Miriam—and, thus, the teaching that no one is infallible; how we angered the Lord in the desert—and, therefore, to be aware of our own penchant for ingratitude.

Similarly, there are commandments concerning forgetfulness. Most prominent is the commandment of shikhhah—that if one has harvested his field and forgotten a corner, he should not return to it but must leave that forgotten corner for the poor (Deut. 25:19). Even more paradoxical is a commandment to forget (although it is not worded explicitly in that manner). We must forget grudges, insults, hurt. Lo tikkom ve-lo tittor—you shall not take revenge, you shall not bear a grudge (Lev. 19:18). Forgetfulness is even considered a blessing.

Our Rabbis teach us: gezerah al ha-met sheyishtakkah min ha-lev, “it is ordained that the dead be forgotten from the heart” (Bereshit Rabbah 84:19). R. Bahya ben Asher pointed out that this is a great blessing, for if man were always to remember the dead, he soon would be laden with such grief that he could not survive emotionally or spiritually (commentary to Gen. 37:35).

But most often, and most usually, forgetfulness is regarded as an evil, as a sin. Thus, the Rabbis taught, Ha-shokheah davar ehad mi-mishnato ma‘aleh alav ha-katuv ke-illu mithayyev be-nafsho, “If one forgets a single item from his studies, Scripture considers it as if he were guilty with his life” (Avot 3:10).

And, of course, the source of all these commandments is the one which gives the Shabbat before Purim its special distinction and its very name: Shabbat Zakhor. Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek . . . lo tishkah (Deut. 25:17–19)— remember what Amalek, that barbaric and savage tribe, did to you . . . you shall not forget.

But this commandment not to forget is problematic. After all, everyone forgets. Forgetting is natural, it is part of both our psychological and our physiological selves; it is not a volitional or deliberate act. How, then, can the Torah consider it a sin if we forget? Permit me to recommend to you an answer suggested by R. Yitzhak Meir, the Gerer Rebbe, known to posterity by the name of his great halakhic work, Hiddushei ha-Rim. Forgetfulness, he says, often depends upon man. For we are not speaking here of simple recollection of facts, but the kind of forgetfulness that implies the emptying out of the mind, the catharsis of the heart of its most basic spiritual principles, of the very props of its identity. And this kind of shikhhah is contingent upon ga’avah; it is a forgetfulness which has its roots in man’s arrogance.

When a man’s mind is preoccupied with himself, he has little place for what is really important—and he forgets it. Hence we read (Deut. 8:14): Ve-ram le-vavekha ve-shakhahta et Hashem Elokekha ha-motzi’akha me-Eretz Mitzrayim mi-beit avadim, “And thy heart shall be lifted up, and thou wilt forget the Lord thy God who taketh thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.”

Similarly, we are commanded to remember and not to forget Amalek. Now, the numerical value of the Hebrew word Amalek is 240—the very same numerical value as the word ram, the heart being lifted, raised, exalted, supercilious! When man is filled with conceit, he falters and forgets.

Too much ego results in too little memory. An absent mind is the result of a swelled head. A high demeanor results in a low recall. If ram, you will forget Amalek. It is the arithmetic of mind and character.

Indeed, this is a human, if not a specifically Jewish, weakness. Rav Kook has taught us in effect that the root of all evils is that we forget who we are, our higher selves. We turn cynical and act as if man is only an amalgam of base drives, of ego-satisfactions, of sexual and material grasping. We forget that, in addition, man is capable of noble action, of sublime sentiment, of self-sacrifice. When we forget that, we are in desperate trouble. (See Orot ha-Kodesh III:97.)

Most Jews who assimilate today, so unlike those of the early and middle parts of this century, do not do so primarily because of self-hatred, but because of a massive act of ethnic forgetfulness. And such national absent-mindedness, such forgetting of our higher identity, is often the result of ve-ram levavekha.

Our memory is weakened by excessive affluence and too much self-confidence. We American Jews act as if our liberties and successes are self-evidently our right. We act as if our good fortune is deserved. And so ve-ram levavekha leads to ve-shakhahta. And what do we most often forget? Amalek!

I read recently that a Swedish gentile woman, who has several times been proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize because of the hundreds of Jews she saved during the Nazi period, said in an interview that only once in her life did she
entertain hatred for a fleeting moment. It occurred during a visit she paid to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, in Jerusalem. She overheard an American Jew say to the guide: “I don’t understand why they didn’t fight? Why weren’t
they real men?” She was seized with anger, and said to him: “You look fat and prosperous! Have you ever been hungry a day in your life? Do you have any idea what it is like to be starved almost to insanity, surrounded by powerful enemies, aware that no one in the world cares for you—and you have the unmitigated nerve to ask that question?”

I confess that in reading the interview, I shared her hatred—but only for a fleeting moment. One cannot hate fools. One can only have contempt for them.

Certainly, we are subject to that weakness of forgetting time and again. Only a year ago Israelis—and Jews throughout the world—were afflicted by overconfidence, and the Yom Kippur War was the result. I should hope that we Jews are bright enough to have learned from this experience.

Most important, one of the things we must never dare to forget is the contemporary Amalek, the Holocaust. The news that the younger generation of Germans does not want to be reminded of it, that they feel they did not participate in it, comes as no surprise to me. But Jews must never fall into the trap of ve-ram levavekha and so forget Amalek. Remember and do not forget! The Holocaust must constantly be part of our education, commemoration, and motivation for further study and spiritual development.

Conversely, too, if we remember Amalek, that will lead to a realistic assessment of ourselves, and we shall be able to avoid the pitfall of a “lifted heart.”

The United States and all the Western world are today in the doldrums. We are all of us in a pessimistic mood about the economy, something which affects each and every one of us. If the Lord helps, and we all escape economic disaster—if it will be, as we say in Yiddish, afgekumen mit a shrek, “escaped with a scare”—then perhaps we will have learned to rid ourselves of the cultural and psychological and moral signs of decadence in our culture, all these corruptions the result of ve-ram levavekha, overconfidence inspired by affluence.

So the Hiddushei ha-Rim has given us an unforgettable Devar Torah about forgetfulness and arrogance.

It is a lesson worthy of our deep thought and meditation. Remember it, do not forget.


Parshat Teruma: Why Build It At All?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemotco-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers



As the Israelites stand rooted at Sinai, yet another major foundation of their eternal heritage is divinely laid. God turns to Moshe and commands, “And they shall make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell among them.”

The construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will accompany the Israelites during their desert travels, is thus launched. This sanctuary serves as the precursor to the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, eventually erected in Jerusalem.

One can scarcely imagine Judaism without the concept of the Beit Hamikdash. No single symbol has been more fundamental to the Jewish people than the Temple, representing their eternal connection to God.

Just as the Mishkan serves as the focal point of the Israelite encampment during its desert wanderings, so too, the first and second Batei Mikdash each become the central feature of the corresponding Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel. Twice destroyed, the Temple lives on in the hearts and minds of Jews throughout the world who pray daily for its rebuilding.


Why does God command that the Mishkan be built in the first place?

Judaism introduces to the world the concept of a unified, omnipresent God Who can be related to and worshiped at any time and in any place. If God is omnipresent, why then does He require a “central address”? Are we not limiting a limitless God by creating a Temple for His worship? To quote the objections of the Abravanel: “Why would God command the creation of the  Sanctuary, as if He were defined in corporeal terms and bounded by specific location? This is the opposite of the truth!”


A multitude of approaches, some of them revolutionary, are suggested by the classical scholars as they struggle to unravel the mysteries surrounding one of Judaism’s most enduring and central symbols. Their suggestions can be divided into two contrasting global positions.


One position is that the creation of the Mishkan is a divinely ordained response to the sin of the egel hazahav (the golden calf). This astounding possibility is first suggested in the Midrash and later adopted by numerous authorities, including Rashi.

The Torah, however, introduces the Mishkan a full two and a half parshiot before the narrative of the golden calf. The Midrashic approach to the sanctuary, therefore, requires the reordering of the text through the application of the principle Ein mukdam u’me’uchar ba’Torah – the Torah text does not necessarily follow chronological order (see Yitro 1, Approaches A). The Midrash thus suggests that, textual flow of the Torah notwithstanding, God did not command the construction of the Mishkan until after the sin of the golden calf.

Why do the rabbis struggle so mightily to place the origin of the Mishkan after the sin of the golden calf ? Because, it would seem, this chronological reordering allows for new light to be thrown on the complex symbolism of the Temple.

Through the eyes of the Midrashic scholars, the Mishkan is not an integral part of God’s original plan for His newly formed nation, but rather a response to their weakness and failing. God has no need for the sanctuary and, in fact, does not initially include it as a component in His relationship with the Israelites. Once the people demonstrate their inability to relate to Him directly, however, God decrees the creation of the Mishkan as an act of remediation.

Some within the Midrash view the creation of the Sanctuary as a healing gesture on the part of God towards the nation. The people find themselves, as a result of the chet ha’egel (sin of the [golden] calf), hopelessly distanced from their Creator. God, therefore, reaches across the chasm to show them a way back.

Other Midrashic sources consider the Sanctuary public testimony to the world of the enduring connection between God and His people, a connection that survives the tragedy of the golden calf.

Most foundational, however, is the approach, based on the Midrashic chronology, which interprets the creation of the Mishkan as a divinely designed response, calculated to counteract the root causes of the chet ha’egel. At the core of this seminal sin lies the nation’s inability to worship God directly without the benefit of intervening tangible symbols. This inability drives the Israelites, upon Moshe’s perceived disappearance, to create the golden calf as a proposed intermediary between themselves and God. Recognizing the people’s need for physical symbols, God, therefore, decrees the creation of the Mishkan and all of its associated rituals and utensils. The fundamental concept of the Beit Hamikdash thus originally emerges as a concession to the Israelites’ limitations.


At this point, we must digress for a moment to consider an overarching issue raised by this Midrashic approach to the Mishkan.

How are we to understand the concept of trial and error in association with God’s will and actions? Mortal man is often forced to resort to “Plan B” when “Plan A” fails. An infallible God, however, should not encounter such difficulty. God knows in advance that the Israelites will sin through the golden calf. Why not, then, short-circuit the process and provide the nation with the symbolism it needs by issuing the commandments concerning the Sanctuary from the outset?

As we have noted before (see Bereishit, Noach 1, Approaches A), trial and error does not exist on God’s part but on man’s. God creates a world based upon free will, and the existence of free will is predicated on the possibility of human failure. In this case, God knows from the very beginning the Israelites will sin, but He does not interfere. Instead, He retreats to allow them room to succeed or fail on their own.

God, in addition, wants the people to learn from their own failure. Had God initially commanded the erection of the sanctuary, the Midrash contends, the Israelites would never have discovered the nature of their own limitations. Like a child, the infant nation must be allowed to stumble and fall, if only to learn to rise again.


One other troubling issue, however, must be raised concerning the Midrashic approach to the Mishkan.

If, as we have suggested, the sin of the golden calf was caused by the nation’s inability to relate to God without the benefit of a physical intermediary, isn’t the proposed “cure” a perpetuation of the problem? God simply seems to substitute the symbolism of the Sanctuary for the symbolism of the golden calf. In what way is this beneficial? Shouldn’t God, instead, train the nation towards the fact that such symbols are unnecessary – that man is capable of establishing a direct relationship with the divine?

On a basic level, we might simply answer that, in contrast to the golden calf, the Sanctuary and its rituals are divinely ordained. Through difficult experience at Sinai, the nation is taught that symbolic worship is allowed in Judaism when, and only when, the symbols involved flow from God’s command.

In a deeper sense, however, the Sanctuary is not a replacement for the golden calf at all but a true antidote for its root causes. Through the creation of the golden calf, the Israelites attempt to establish distance between themselves and their Creator. Frightened by the perceived loss of Moshe and firmly convinced of their inability to relate to the divine directly without a go-between, the nation erects the golden calf to act as an intermediary between themselves and God (see Ki Tissa 2, Approaches B). In contrast, as will become clear in the next two studies (see Teruma 2, 3), the Mishkan represents man’s ability to draw close to God. Properly understood, each and every detail of the Sanctuary and its associated rituals and utensils carries the message of God’s accessibility to man. In a brilliant stroke, God not only responds to the chet ha’egel but prominently weaves the corrective to that failing into the very fabric of Jewish tradition.


In spite of the attractiveness of the Midrashic approach as a rationale for the creation of the Sanctuary, numerous other scholars, such as the Ramban, demur.

Unwilling to accept the notion that the central concept of the Beit Hamikdash could possibly have emerged after the fact, as a concession to the weakness of the Israelites, these authorities maintain that God intended all along to create a central location for his worship.

In the words of Nehama Leibowitz, these scholars

reject the idea that the Sanctuary was in any way an afterthought, a cure for their [the Israelites’] sickness, atonement for sin, or compromise between the idea of spirituality and the reality of man’s material conceptions, demanding a form of worship limited to a definite space-time dimension. On the contrary, the institution of the Sanctuary was there from the beginning, a deliberate act of divine grace and thoughtfulness designed to strengthen the immanence of His presence [my italics].

The Ramban and his colleagues maintain that the Mishkan and, therefore, the entire concept of a Beit Hamikdash are much too significant not to have been part of God’s initial plan for His people. Far from being the source of the Mishkan, the sin of the golden calf actually threatens its creation. Only God’s forgiveness for that sin reinstates His full relationship with the Israelites and enables the Sanctuary to be built.


Another benefit, of course, accrues to this approach.

The chronology of events at Mount Sinai unfolds exactly as recorded in the text. The commandments concerning the erection of the Mishkan are divinely transmitted to Moshe prior to the chet ha’egel. After that tragic event, God conveys His willingness to forgive and to reestablish His relationship with the nation. Moshe consequently perceives, of his own accord,that the previously given directives associated with the Sanctuary still apply. He therefore proceeds to share them with the nation.

The Ramban, among others, thus remains consistent in his general reluctance to uproot the sequence of events as they are recorded in the text. “Why,” he asks, in an attack on Rashi concerning this issue, “should we overturn the words of the living God?” Unless the text itself indicates otherwise, maintains the Ramban, events in the Torah actually unfold in the order in which they are recorded.


Those scholars who view the Mishkan as part of God’s original blueprint for His chosen people also maintain that the Sanctuary is in no way meant to be perceived as an intermediary between the Israelites and their God. Man’s ability to relate to his Creator directly is, after all, a hallmark of Jewish faith. The Mishkan, its symbols and its rituals are, instead, tools, carefully devised to assist the Israelites in the enterprise of seeking the divine.

Various theories are offered by the commentaries as to exactly how the Sanctuary achieves this goal.

Some, such as the Ba’al Hachinuch, author of the Sefer Hachinuch, suggest that the Mishkan provides the Israelites with the setting in which they can regularly perform personally beneficial acts of prayer and sacrifice. Such repeated action, says the Ba’al Hachinuch, makes a positive impact upon each supplicant, serving to purify his thoughts and refine his character.

Others focus on the minute details of the rituals and utensils associated with the Sanctuary. Each of the many details recorded in the Torah, they suggest, carries its own specific lessons concerning the relationship between God and man.

As will become even clearer over the next studies, neither the Mishkan nor the Beit Hamikdash, no matter their origin, is “God’s home.” Each of these central institutions is, instead, divinely designed to teach how we can successfully “bring God home to us.”