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Counting Sheep

B”H

Shiur for parashas Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20) 5780

“Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel.”

– Numbers 1:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

“The literal translation of the above mentioned verse would be, ‘Lift up the head of the entire assembly.” This rendering has two potential meanings: that the people would be lifted up to a higher spiritual status or brought down by their own unworthiness. The phrase suggests either upliftment, if B’nei Yisrael were worthy in G-d’s eyes, or chastisement, if they were not acting in accordance with His expectations of them (Ramban).

The sages note that there were nine times recorded in the Tanach, whereupon a census was taken. According to their rendering of scripture, there will be a tenth census taken in the days of Moshiach. “The flocks again pass under the hands of him that counteth them, saith the L-RD” (Jeremiah 33:13, JPS 1917 Tanach). According to the rendering of this verse by the Targum Yonaton, the verse reads, “by the hand of Moshiach.”

The world is judged four times a year; the sages envision the judgment that occurs on Rosh HaShannah, as a census being taken, likened to counting sheep: “On Rosh HaShana all creatures pass before Him like sheep [benei maron], as it is stated: ‘He Who fashions their hearts alike, Who considers all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15)” (Talmud, tractate Rosh HaShannah 16a, sefaria.org).

The mashal (parable) of counting the sheep also points towards the final judgment, when all of mankind will be judged. “For I [know] their works and their thoughts; [the time] cometh, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and shall see My glory” (Isaiah 66:18).

“Therefore will I save My flock, and they shall no more be a prey; and I will judge between cattle and cattle. And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even My servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the L-RD will be their G-d, and My servant David prince among them” (Ezekiel 34:22-24, JPS 1917 Tanach).

parashas Bamidbar

six thousand years of history

B”H

Shiur for parashas Behar-Bechukosai 5780

“Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the L-RD; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.” – Leviticus 25:3-4, JPS 1917 Tanach

What is more important, the symbol or what the symbol conveys? The sages say that on Shabbos we get a glimpse of Olam Haba (the World to Come). While we look forward to a day of rest every week, the greater import is its likeness to Olam Haba. Therefore, both the weekly Shabbos, a twenty-five hour period of rest, and what the Shabbos conveys have significance. We enjoy our day of rest in this world, and are inspired, even reassured by the forthcoming thousand year Sabbath, that actually precedes Olam Haba, in the next world, when the new heavens and the new earth appear (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22).

A similar question, what is more tangible, the symbol or what the symbol points toward? Regarding Shabbat, it seems quite apparent that three festive meals, two of them preceded by Kiddush, are well worth waiting for throughout the previous six days of week, and very tangible realities. Yet, they are ephemeral; and, after havdallah, although our souls are somewhat comforted by the smell of the besamim (spices, usually cloves), we still have the mundane weekdays ahead of us. So, Olam Haba, is described in the negative, because we cannot conceive of the World to Come. Rather Kitvei Kodesh (Holy Scripture) describes Olam Haba as a place in time, whereof no eye has seen, nor ear heard of its delights (Isaiah 64:3). Therefore, although Olam Haba may seem less tangible, from our perspective in Olam HaZeh (This World), Olam Haba will last forever. Food for thought.

The commandment of Shemitah, wherein the land lies fallow every seventh year, is also symbolic of the Millennial Shabbos. The first six years, wherein the land was worked represent the six thousand years of history mentioned in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98). In the seventh year, the land lies fallow, pointing towards the thousand years of peace. Thus, the implied message may be taken as that there is a reward for our efforts in this world, on a spiritual level, so that the souls that are written in the Book of Life, may partake of eternal life at the Tehillas HaMeisim (Resurrection of the Dead).

“This world is like a corridor before Olam Haba; prepare yourself in the corridor, so that you may enter the Banquet Hall.” – Pirkei Avot 4:21

weekly reading: Sanctification

B”H

Shiur for parashas Emor

The Sanctification of H’Shem’s Name

“I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.”
– Leviticus 22:32

Selfless behavior could be defined as akin to mesiras nefesh – self-sacrifice. Mesiras nefesh may be viewed as an ongoing act in the sense of subduing the yetzer hara (the evil inclination), for the sake of sanctifying H’Shem’s name. The resultant reward is that we ourselves become sanctified, every time that we do not give in to our own character weaknesses. This is a challenge that appears in many circumstances on a daily basis; therefore, it is best to be on guard against temptation, by strengthening ourselves through constant vigilance.

To be selfless, in respect to mesiras nefesh on the level of morality, is to actively engage in diminishing our own will in favor of the ratzon (will) of H’Shem. When we negate ourselves, we renew ourselves for the sake of H’Shem who sanctifies us. This is a two way street of reciprocity; otherwise, like two sides of the same coin. Whereof, we are sanctified by H’Shem, through our own efforts to become holy. When we separate ourselves from unholiness, we are blessed with an equal measure of kedushah from H’Shem. By serving H’Shem, we bring glory (kavod) to H’Shem.

“You are my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

-Isaiah 49:3

Imatatio Dei

B”H

7 Iyar 5780

1 May 2020

Shiur for parashas Acharei-Mos – Kedoshim 5780

“Ye shall be holy, for I the L-RD your G-d am holy.”

  • Leviticus 19:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

We are created b’tzelem Elokim – in the image of G-d – as is written, “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them” (Genesis 1:27, JPS). We are to imitate G-d, in a sincere effort to live up to that image. In specific, we should focus our efforts on an attempt to approach His level of holiness, even if this may not be within our own power to do so.

Consider, Nadav and Abihu, who raised themselves up above their status as kohanim, sons of Aaron (see Leviticus 10:1-2). They did not recognize the boundaries placed before themselves and H’Shem. Therefore, they served as a negative example to maintain a high level of respect, awe, and reverence towards H’Shem, regardless of our calling to be like unto Him.

In parashas Kedoshim, H’Shem tells Moshe, “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the L-RD your G-d am holy” (Leviticus 19:2, JPS). A question may be asked, relevant to the theme of kedushah (holiness): how are we able to even approach the level of G-d’s holiness? Again, this is an ideal standard, that we are to simply set as our goal. Yet, it’s attainment is by no means simple, nor even possible without H’Shem at the helm of our ship, guiding our way upon the ocean of life.

weekly reading: Sanctity

B”H

Shiur for parashas Tazria-Metzorah 5780

The Sanctity of Life
“Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: if a woman be delivered, and bear a man child.”

– Leviticus 12:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

According to Torah, the miracle of life, from the beginning, is addressed within the framework of sanctification. That is, both the mother and the child are taken into consideration, in terms of their purificaion. Specifically, the mother as well as child are given a means to commemorate the birth. This is akin to a life cycle tradition. When a male is born, the mother’s temporary state of impurity is only for seven days; this permits her to be present on the eighth day for her son’s circumcision.

The parashas continues with the laws, in regard to tzarras, a skin affliction, often mistranslated as leprosy. The metzorah (person who contracts tzarras) is diagnosed and quarantined. Because the metzorah has contracted tzarras as a result of lashon hara (literally, evil speech), being isolated outside of the camp provides time for reflection upon the harm done to the recipient of his gossip. H’Shem willing, the metzorah will be able to return to society, as a result of his tikkun (rectification).

The concept appears within the framework of the sanctity required to approach H’Shem. Since H’Shem’s presence dwells within the mishkan (tabernacle) at the center of the camp, the metzorah is separated by way of not being permitted to be in the vicinity of the mishkan. Thus the sanctity of the camp is preserved; and, the metzorah is given the opportunity to do teshuvah (repentance), turning his heart back to Elokim (G-d).

Reverence Towards G-d

B”H

23 Nissan 5780

April 17, 2020

Shiur for parashas Shemini 5780

“This is it that HShem spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”

– Leviticus 10:3, JPS 1917 Tanach

According to chazal, Nadav and Avihu are portrayed as righteous individuals who overstepped the boundaries in place for them as kohanim (priests); as they tried to draw closer to HShem, in an unauthorized manner, they were consumed by fire from before H’Shem (Leviticus 10:2, JPS). According to the Talmud, Aaron’s two sons died, only for the sake of sanctifying H’Shems name (Zevachim 115b). Within the same Talmudic passage, another view expresses their deaths in a more nuanced way, specifically, alluding to their transgression, by making the point that they had previously been cautioned against drawing too close to HShem.

Rashi comments that through the execution of judgment upon righteous individuals, yiras H’Shem (fear of G-d) is brought upon the people. Therefore, with respect to Nadav and Avihu, their deaths caused the people to witness how precarious serving G-d may be, if a righteous person is not careful in respect to his avodah (service towards HShem). The deaths of Nadav and Avihu show, by way of an example with a deadly consequence, that HShem needs to be approached with great reverence, awe, and respect.

A harsher condemnation of Nadav and Avihu may be rendered by a perspective that is even more critical of their transgression. They brought “alien fire” from a source other than the fire on the mizbeach. The fire on the mizbeach had its origin from Shomayim (Leviticus 9:24). According to Sifre, fire descended in the shape of a pillar between heaven and earth. Yet, Nadav and Avihu flouted the implicit directive, to draw fire from the outer mizbeach for all of the offerings the original fire that had been initiated by H’Shem.

What could have motivated Nadav and Avihu to take alien fire for their incense offering, instead of the fire that H’Shem had provided? One view critiques them as desiring to usurp the authority of Moshe and Aaron. Since the authority of Moshe and Aaron was given to them from HShem, then flouting that authority would be akin to disregarding the authority of H’Shem. Therefore, it could be inferred that their taking of alien fire constitutes a betrayal of their motives to disregard the sovereignty of H’Shem.

Towards the end of the first Temple period, the people were admonished, “they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13, JPS). The people had sought out other gods – alien gods – to worship, according to their own intentions; thus, they had forsaken H’Shem.

When we approach H’Shem in prayer, our avodah (service), equivalent to “prayer of the heart,” should be done so in reverence. Serving H’Shem, through the performance of the mitzvot, as well as prayer, may also require a rigorous examination of conscience, for the sake of bringing to light ulterior motives, faults, and character defects. Who shall ascend into the mountain of H’Shem? And who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart [lev tahor]; who hath not taken My name in vain, and hath not sworn deceitfully (Psalm 24:4, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Service of the Heart

B”H

9 Nissan 5780

Shiur for parashas Tzav 5780

“And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest [kohein] shall kindle wood on it every morning.”

– Leviticus 6:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

No other offerings could precede the morning olah, the first of the two tamid offerings, made in the morning and the afternoon; thus, every morning the first order of business in serving H’Shem, for the kohein, included adding wood on the mizbeach, before offering up the olah (Bava Kamma 111a). According to the Talmud, two logs of wood were added to the fire on the mizbeach (outer altar) every morning and evening (Yoma 27b). Yet, prior to this, the remnant of ashes from the remaining parts of the olah offering from the previous night, were first collected, and set aside near the mizbeach (altar). Then, the kohein changed out of his sacred clothes, into used garments, in order to bring those ashes outside “to a pure place.” (Leviticus 6:4).

The changing of garments signifies a delineation between the sacred and profrane, inasmuch that the transition from one service to another required different garments. The separating of the ashes, placing them in a pile next to the mizbeach (altar) was one service. Taking the ashes outside to a pure place was another. The second set of garments were bound to be soiled, when bringing the ashes outside to the third camp. This was a designated area, further a way from the mishkan (tabernacle). Each camp, at an increasingly further perimeter around the mishkan had its own level of holiness.

This denotes the overall theme of sacred and mundane found Torah, as well as in our own lives. At least, we are called to denote a difference between secular time (the six days of the week), and sacred time (the Sabbath). Also, to bring an awareness of the Shechinah (G-d’s Presence) into our lives, we need to create room for doing so, in both time and space. Primarily, this awareness may be fostered, by settling our minds, and creating a space within ourselves, in order to focus on our connection to H’Shem. This may be done, not only on Shabbat; rather, also on other days of the week by finding a little bit of quiet time for ourselves. To foster that connection to G-d, is called hisbodedus – a type of meditation of the heart. In that manner, we may symbolically keep the fire of our avodah (service) to H’Shem burning on a continual basis.

weekly reading: Vayikra

B”H

Shiur for parashas Vayikra 5780

“When any man of you bringeth an offering unto the L-RD.”

– Leviticus 1:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The Hebrew word for offering is korban. The shoresh (root word) of korban is KRV, meaning “to draw near.” Therefore, the act of bringing an offering has the connotation of drawing near to H’Shem. According to Akeidas Yitzchak, the olah offering, in particular represents prayer from the heart, because the olah completely ascends to H’Shem. Therefore, in like manner that the entire animal brought as an olah offering is consumed on the mizbeach (altar), so too, will our prayers of the heart ascend to G-d.

Interestingly enough, the name associated with the korbanot is H’Shem (YHVH), the name that denotes H’Shem’s Attribute of Mercy. Since the korban is not associated with the name, Elokim that represents the Attribute of Justice, the implication is that an offering permits us to draw near to H’Shem, because of His mercy towards us: for, although the world was first created with the Attribute of Justice, denoted by the name Elokim (the name of G-d that first appears in the Creation narrative), later, the name H’Shem (YHVH) appears, because the world could not survive without Mercy (see Rashi, Genesis 1:1).

H’Shem’s Attribute of mercy makes an allowance for reconciliation through atonement, by way of a korban. The first offering was made for mankind by H’Shem, for the sake of Adam and Chava, when they disobeyed Him and ate from the Tree of Good and Evil. Furthermore, He covered them with clothes derived from the offering (see Genesis 3:21). That an offering was indeed made is alluded to by a particular commentary that speaks of the mate of Leviathan being slayed by G-d, in order to clothe Adam and Chava (Chizkuni, R. Bachya, commentary on Genesis 3:21).

weekly reading: the Census

B”H

Shiur for parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei 5779

When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the L-Rd.”

– Exodus 30:12, JPS 1917 Tanach

A unique perspective on the census taken of B’nei Yisrael involves the consideration of how the silver from the census – a half shekel from every man – was actually used in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). First of all, let us consider the amount of silver that was taken: “And the silver of them that were numbered of the congregation was a hundred talents, and a thousand seven hundred and three-score and fifteen shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary” (Exodus 38:25, JPS 1917 Tanach).

The one hundred talents of silver was used for ninety-six sockets at the base of the planks that served to make the walls of the Mishkan, plus four sockets for the partition screen (see scripture). The remaining silver amounted to less than a talent; this was also used to build the mishkan. The exact amount needed was the exact amount collected from B’nei Yisrael when the census had previously been taken. Ohr HaChaim comments that this was a miracle.

Additionally, the census is referred to as an atonement for the souls of B’nei Yisrael. Commentary explains that the half shekels that were taken from each indvidual served as atonement for their souls, specifically for the sin of the golden calf.

Sforno draws another insight, noting that the nature of a census itself requires an atonement for the souls of the individuals counted. He explains, that the mentioning of a head count of people is an oblique reminder of mans sin, his guilt (commentary on 30:12, sefaria.org). In his estimation, humans change from day to day, in regard to their moral status. Therefore, they are not the same when counted each time.

It is as if they are scrutinized by the Almighty at the time of a census, and may fall short of His standard, namely, the commandments, at the time of counting. Therefore, the half shekel served as an atonement for their moral deficiencies at the time of scrutiny.

Inasmuch that these half shekels were used to build the mishkan, another insight can be drawn, in regard to the importance of atonement. The Mishkan served as a dwelling place for H’Shem; yet, its purpose emphasized a central structure where offerings for atonement would be made on behalf of B’nei Yisrael.

May it be H’Shem’s will that when we are scrutinized, we will be judged favorably. May His attribute of mercy override His attribute of judgment.

Ki Tisa – A Remedy Prepared

B”H

Shiur for parashas Ki Tisa 5780
17 Adar 5780 (March 13, 2020)

H’Shem plagued the people, because they made the calf. ” – Exodus 32:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights; during this time, H’Shem spoke with Moses – according to some commentators, Moses received the instruction for the Mishkan at this time. It is mentioned in the Talmud, that H’Shem creates the cure before the ailment. Here, the blueprints for the Mishkan served as the remedy to what had not yet occurred – the idolatry of the golden calf. H’Shem prepared the cure before the sickness.

What is the malaise of idolatry? To place anything in our lives above our commitment to H’Shem. This raises up the created above the Creator, G-d forbid. Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven (Talmud). Therefore, our conscious effort to make G-d most important in our lives is up to us; in effect, we are called upon to crown Him as King – sovereign over every aspect of our lives.

In these challenging days, we also look for the remedy to the various ailments of our lives; yet, even when there seems to be no hope on the horizon, we must maintain a sense of bechirah (trust) in H’Shem, that He has already designated, the time, place, and remedy for each of us to continue on the derech (path) towards righteous.

Yet, the path is narrow, there are many distractions along the way. It was only when Moshe sought out the forgiveness of H’Shem, on behalf of B’nei Yisrael, that he was able to receive the second set of tablets. We are also given second chances in our lives; however, if we do not even realise the need to change our ways, we may be given a wake up call.

The Mishkan (portable tabernacle in the wilderness) permitted B’nei Yisrael to focus on worshipping H’Shem; we need to do the same, in a manner of speaking, and be ever mindful of H’Shem’s Presence. “I have set the L-RD always before me; surely He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalms 16:8, JPS 1917 Tanach).