Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Today being one of the seven days which make up the "extended" Shavuot holiday (the last day in fact), it seems appropriate to link to an insightful analysis of bikurim.

Oh, and just for fun, two insightful links regarding the giving of the Torah.

Guess I could have linked to this a week ago, but I'm lazy.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Thoughts on Sefer Vayikra

Many people find Sefer Vayikra boring. It has lots of laws and few stories. The stories which do appear aren't very interesting. And the laws are weird and obscure. Perhaps worst of all, there is no chronological context; laws and stories seem to be jumbled together without rhyme or reason. What exactly are we supposed to take away from such an apparently inscrutable book?

On close inspection, though, Sefer Vayikra in fact has a simple, elegant, and meaningful structure. The stories and laws are closely integrated into thematic sections. Basically, there are three halachic passages in Vayikra. Each of these comes right after a story, completing the story and memorializing the lessons learned from it. And the three sections themselves seem to fit a quite interesting pattern, which will be discussed later on.

The stories and laws can be summarized as follows:
 (Shemot 25-40 Story 1: The Mishkan is built)
 Vayikra 1-7 Halacha 1: Sacrifices in the Mishkan/Temple
 Vayikra 8-10 Story 2: Nadav/Avihu killed at Mishkan inauguration
 Vayikra 11-24:9 Halacha 2: Establishing boundaries
 Vayikra 24:10-24:23 Story 3: A blasphemer is put to death
 Vayikra 25-26 Halacha 3: The Sinai covenant and fear of God

(I ignore chapter 27 because I consider it to be completely outside the basic structure of Sefer Vayikra - see here.)

Halacha 1:

This reacts to the previous story (in Sefer Shemot) in which the Mishkan was built. Now we have a Mishkan, this tells us what to do with it. The Mishkan was only constructed once, but the use or maintenance of the Mishkan, by means of these sacrifices, was supposed to continue forever.

Story 2:

This is the first story actually in Vayikra. The Mishkan is inaugurated through an intricate procedure. But meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu bring an incense offering which God hadn't commanded, and they are killed for this offense.

Halacha 2:

Nadav and Avihu's crime was to offer incense which God had not commanded. More fundamentally, they failed to recognize that the Mishkan is especially holy, God's special territory so to speak, and different rules apply there than elsewhere (see here). Their crime was to ignore the boundary between the Mishkan and regular life.

As a result, the laws which follow the Nadav and Avihu story are all about establishing boundaries between the holy and the non-holy. Specifically, between kosher and not-kosher food, purity and impurity, holidays and regular days, priests and everyone else, and the Temple and outside life. Even the non-ritual and social-justice laws in this section (chapter 19, parshat Kedoshim) are presented in terms of preserving the distinction between holy and non-holy. Nadav and Avihu's failure to recognize the distinctiveness of the Mishkan is used as an opportunity to emphasize the distinctiveness with which Jews must conduct themselves throughout their lives.

Story 3:

A man is caught blaspheming God and is imprisoned. God says that he should be stoned to death, and they do so. God also specifies the punishments (capital or monetary) for various other crimes.

Halacha 3:

Sefer Vayikra begins with the introduction, "And [God] called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying...".

This implies that first laws in the book were given not on Mount Sinai, but in the newly built Mishkan. The same seems to be true of all the laws which follow it, until chapter 25 (parshat Behar) - the beginning of the "Halacha 3" section. Here, the command is introduced with the line "Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying...". Apparently the "Halacha 3" section was in fact given at Sinai, while “Halacha 1” and “Halacha 2” were not.

If we look at the details of this final section, we see further links to Mount Sinai. Parshat “Behar” includes laws of the sabbatical year, the jubilee, slavery and the land, as well as a brief discussion of idolatry, Shabbat, and the Temple. All of these are very similar to the laws in parshat Mishpatim, which is the main body of laws following the Mount Sinai story. The next chapter, “Bechukotai”, is even more closely related to Sinai. It is the text of a covenant, and the only covenant which has been made so far is that of Sinai.

But at the same time, “Halacha 3” differs from the previous stories from Mount Sinai. There, it seems that humans can function somewhat autonomously and independently from God, though of course not in rebellion against Him. Here, the constant repetition of the phrase “ani Hashem”, and the symbolism of God as ever-present ruler and owner, indicate a different theological perspective. While the mitzvot in "Halacha 3" are like those in Mishpatim, the tone seems to be more like the rest of Sefer Vayikra.

As R' Yoni Grossman says, at Sinai we accepted the Torah willingly - out of love of God. Love is an extremely important aspect of our relationship with God, but so is fear of God. This equally important second face does not play a major part in Mishpatim, presumably because it was not what motivated us at that point. But it is the main aspect here. If fear of God had only been presented in connection with the Mishkan, earlier in Sefer Vayikra, we might mistakenly think that fear of God is only relevant in certain ritual contexts. In fact though, it is necessary in every aspect of our religious life. Thus the commitment of parshat Mishpatim and Mount Sinai is essentially "repeated" here, this time with fear not love as motivation.

Now, finally, let us return to the story of the blasphemer, which precedes these laws. On one level this is simply a story of sin and punishment - the exact details do not matter - which parallels the blessings and curses which follow two chapters later. The knowledge that death sentences are actually carried out is a deterrent against performing capital sins.

On another level, this particular story is thematically connected to the Mount Sinai experience and especially to parshat Mishpatim. It is the first story of a judicial death penalty in the Torah, in contrast to the many previous stories in which people are killed miraculously or without due process. It thus represents the institution of the judicial system which is implied by many of the laws in Mishpatim. The unusual digression in God's declaration of punishments is even more suggestive. After the punishment for blasphemy (the only immediately relevant law), God specifies several other punishments. Murder is punished by death, killing an animal is punished monetarily, and injury to a person is punished "eye for eye, tooth for tooth". These laws are virtually word-for-word the same as their parallels in Mishpatim. The overall impression is that in this story, the laws from Sinai are being implemented for the first time.

And in summary...

It is worth noting that there are exactly three sections in Sefer Vayikra. It is even more interesting to note the progression of the sections: first a section directly related to the Temple service; then a section establishing boundaries, related to the Temple but also relevant outside it; then a section with no connection to the Temple, designed simply to impress fear of God upon us and reconnect to the Mount Sinai experience.

This progression has two striking thematic parallels. The first parallel is the division between the sectors of the Jewish people: kohanim, leviim, yisraelim. The second parallel is the three-tiered physical structure of the Temple itself. In both cases, as in the structure of Sefer Vayikra, there are "higher" and "lower" degrees of sanctification, and a third non-ritual level in which we must nevertheless behave strictly according to God's commands.

It seems that Sefer Vayikra is intentionally designed to suggest one or both of these parallels. Through observance of the various types of laws in Vayikra, we can form our entire society into a kind of Temple. Even today when some fraction of the laws are inapplicable, through the remaining laws we can nevertheless make our community into a vehicle for God's presence.

We also learn - as a general guide for religious life - that ritual laws must be coupled by ethical laws and vice versa, and both types of laws must be underpinned by fear of God.

Interestingly, Sefer Bamidbar seems to have exactly the same story-laws-story-laws pattern as Sefer Vayikra. The difference, of course, is that in Bamidbar the stories are much longer and dominate the book, while the laws are subordinate to them.

UPDATE: Kiddushin 33a mentions that Torat Kohanim, the midrash on Vayikra, is divided into "thirds". Perhaps this is the same as my three-part division? Doubtful, but still...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Study and practice

What is more important, study of Torah or performance of Torah? See here for a selection of answers to this question. The debate seems to be over whether there is independent value to study, in addition to the value of performance.

I want to suggest a different, perhaps radical, perhaps bizarre answer. Let's take the Rambam's approach to an extreme, and assume that there is NO independent value to mitzvot. That the purpose of life is simply to attain a fuller comprehension of God and Torah. That what matters is not the state of the world, but simply your internal state, the extent of your comprehension and awareness.

We all know, empirically, that the best way to learn about something is to get your hands dirty experimenting with it. Perhaps this is true on a deep level about Torah as well. The experience of doing a mitzvah grants you a fuller understanding of the mitzvah than you could get simply by studying it. Thus, even if mitzvot have no independent value, you could still say that mitzvah performance is a necessary and inescapable part of life.

In his discussion of Akedat Yitzchak, R' Hasdai Crescas asks what the purpose of testing Avraham was. If God (being omniscient) knew ahead of time that Avraham would pass, then what is gained by carrying out the test? R' Crescas' answer is that the act of doing a positive action instills positive character traits in you. God wanted to improve Avraham's character, and the only way to accomplish this was "the hard way", through physical fulfillment of the test.

According to R' Crescas, performance of mitzvot apparently has no intrinsic significance. The only thing that matters is the resulting improvement of your character. A similar approach would justify what we have said about Torah study. Performing the Torah is just a means toward understanding the Torah, which is what really matters in life. Despite the philosophical radicalness of this approach, since the utility of mitzvah performance is quite high, the practical implications (nafka minot) of the approach would be minor.

Such an approach would probably solve several deep theological difficulties, while creating several new difficulties of its own. But that discussion will have to wait for another time...

Don't become a lawyer here

You'll earn less money than the average taxi driver. Or so they say. But definitely much, much less than you would earn in the US.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thoughts on Shemonei Esrei: Avot

The first bracha of Shemonei Esrei seems to me to have the following chiastic structure:
  1. Who God is
    • Particular aspect (Baruch atah ... elokei yaakov)
    • Universal aspect (Hael hagadol ... El elyon)
  2. What God does
    • Universal aspect (Gomel chasadim ... koneh hakol)
    • Particular aspect (Zocher chasdei ... beahava)
  3. Conclusion (Melech ozer ... magen avraham)

I will now try to explain each line individually, as well as to weave in an overall analysis of what the bracha is about.

1a. Who God is (particular)
Blessed are you, Hashem, our God and God of our ancestors,

This opening differs from most other blessings in that "King of the universe" is replaced by "God of our ancestors". But this is easily explained. When eating food, for example, our blessing recognizes the impersonal "natural" God who created the food along with the rest of the world. When praying, this impersonal manifestation of God is less relevant. What matters is the personal/national aspect of God with which you/we can form a relationship. So we mention "God of our ancestors" - it was our ancestors' covenant that allows us to approach God with this prayer.

The entire phrase "Hashem, God of (your) ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Yaakov" comes from Shemot 3:15. Moshe asks what God's "name" is - i.e. how God is to to be addressed - and this is the answer.

God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Yaakov,

This line explains the previous line, telling us WHICH covenants allow us to approach God.

The Matriarchs are not included because they did not make formal covenants with God in the way the Patriarchs did. (Sarah and Rivkah had interesting quasi-covenantal experiences, but they clearly were not formal in the way that their husbands' were.)

You might wonder why these covenants are mentioned, but not the seemingly more important covenant at Sinai. I can think of three possible explanations:

1) These covenants established a relationship with God, while the covenant at Sinai only strengthened an existing relationship.

(If that's the case, then why are Yitzchak and Yaakov mentioned? Didn't Avraham's covenant establish a relationship and Yitzchak and Yaakov only confirm it? Perhaps Yitzchak and Yaakov could have gone the way of Yishmael and Esav, abandoning their parents' covenant without negative consequences. Thus they too, and not just Avraham, were in the position of establishing and not confirming a covenant. Also, Avraham's covenant may have implicitly included Yitzchak, and thus is considered Yitzchak's covenant too, while Yaakov's covenant might be qualitatively different from those preceding it in that it included all of Yaakov's descendants.)

2) The covenants with the Patriarchs established the kind of emotional relationship which is necessary for prayer, while the covenant at Sinai only established a system of laws and commandments and rewards and punishments, none of which are directly related to prayer.

3) Sinai IS implicitly mentioned: this is part of the "burning bush" story which takes place at Sinai, and God says in 3:12 than "when you take the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain".

1b. Who God is (universal)
Great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God,

This line segues from God's particular relationship with us to His general relationship with humanity, by pointing out the limits of the particular relationship.

"Great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God" is a direct quote from the Torah which is best understood in its original context. Moshe is explaining why the Jews should obey God:

"Behold, to Hashem your God belongs the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, and all that is in it. But Hashem delighted in your ancestors to love them, and He chose their seed after them - you - from all peoples, as it is this day. So circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. For Hashem your God - He is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, who neither recognizes individuals nor takes bribes...." (Devarim 10:14-17)

To summarize, God established a special relationship with the Jewish people. You might think that due to this relationship, God is willing to show favoritism to us. But, the Torah says, this is incorrect. The "great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God" demands a standard of behavior from us which is at least as high as for the rest of humanity. Despite "choosing our seed", God will not "recognize individuals nor take bribes". Therefore, we have to carefully follow the Torah.

The exact same correction occurs in the prayer. We just mentioned our special, particular relationship with God. But if we just had a fuzzy-wuzzy patron God who would give us whatever we wanted automatically, what point would there really be to prayer? It's like the 16-year-old whose parents always give him the car keys, and who feels no need ever to obey or even talk to them. If the parents were to set standards for giving him the keys, then he'd be forced to take them more seriously. If God were to indulge Israel no matter what we do, then we would almost certainly drift away and fail to accomplish the task God has assigned for us.

Supreme God,

This name of God ("El Elyon") is mentioned just twice in Tanach. Once is Tehillim 78:35, where it is next to two other names of God. The multiple names are apparently used simply for poetic variety, so I don't ascribe too much importance to this occurrence.

The more important occurrence is in Breishit 14:18-22. There the priest Malchitzedek says to Avraham (named Avram at that point): "Blessed be Avram to El Elyon, and blessed be El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth." Avraham does not immediately answer. But two verses later, when he is invited to take spoils from the recent battle, he replies "I will have lifted my hand against Hashem El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth, if I take any of your possessions, whether a thread or a shoelace..."

Like Malchitzedek, Avraham recognizes "El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth" as the unique and omnipotent God. But Avraham adds in an extra name of God - "Hashem". It's the same God, but the name Hashem is specific to the Jewish people. Both aspects are important: the national and the universal. But Malchitzedek can only mention the universal aspect, while Avraham combines the two.

So what is this name doing here? I think it exemplifies what is implied in the previous phrase. Despite our special relationship with God, God is concerned with the universal as well. We began the prayer by focusing on the special relationship, which is after all what allows us to pray as we do. But this should not lead us to a distorted overall picture of God which ignores the universal aspects.

2a. What God does (universal)

At this point we have finished discussing who God "is", in both the particular and universal senses, and we move on to examples of what God "does". This is the midpoint of the prayer.

On Friday night after the Maariv Shemoneh Esreh, we say a truncated version of the first bracha which ends exactly here (it then adds the words "koneh shamayim vaaretz" which are simply the continuation of the "el elyon" verse). Apparently, the truncated version concerns itself with "who God is" but not with "what God does", causing the second half of the bracha to be omitted. (Why is this? Perhaps "what God does" is just evidence which helps prove "who God is", and as in the ensuing "magen avot" prayer, this bracha is simply stripped of peripheral elements to the maximum extent possible.)

The "what God does" section contains two examples: creation and redemption. In additional to the universal/particular division that I have proposed, these two examples may be chosen to represent the beginning and end of history, and by extension, also everything in between.

Who bestows good kindnesses, and creates all,

On this line, the "kindnesses" are those bestowed on us by God. The next words, "and creates all", are probably an explanation of these kindnesses. That said, it's not totally clear exactly what kindnesses are being referred to. Perhaps the very fact that the world exists is a kindness by God. Or perhaps, the phrase "and creates all" is meant to cover the smaller kindnesses which God continually performs, but which are too numerous to be listed individually.

God's kindnesses here are referred to as "good kindnesses", but in the next line we simply have "kindnesses". I think that "good" here indicates the effect, not the intention, of the gesture. Human kindness to God is a nice gesture, but it doesn't actually do anything for God, because God doesn't need anything done for Him. Whereas God's kindnesses to us are very necessary and fill our vital needs; thus they are considered "good".

2b. What God does (particular)
And recalls the kindnesses of the Patriarchs, and brings a redeemer to their descendants,

I translated "zocher" as "recalls" and not "remembers". Not only would there be a theological problem if God were to remember or forget, but the word "zocher" in Tanach consistently refers to action, not simply to a state of mind. (Its meaning is almost identical to that of the word "poked".) "Remember", which is entirely mental, is the wrong translation and "recall", which can imply action, is better.

The way I have divided the lines, this line is structurally similar to the previous line. Each line consists of two phrases, and the first phrase in each mentions "kindnesses". The second phrase on each line is apparently either an explanation or the result of the previously mentioned "kindnesses".

In the previous (universal) line we had God doing kindness for human beings; here some of the human beings reciprocate. The human "kindness" here can be identified as the Patriarchs' acceptance of a covenant with, and thus loyalty to God (as was mentioned at the beginning of the blessing).

Despite the parallel between the Patriarchs' and God's kindness, the overall focus remains solely on God. The Patriarchs' "kindness" is mentioned only as secondary to God's response to it. This indicates the asymmetry between us and God. There is a tendency to see God and the Jewish people as counterparts to each other (as in "ani ledodi vedodi li"). But in fact God is transcendent and all-powerful, and we are not, and there cannot really be any equitable comparison between the two.

For the sake of His name, with love.

There is a universal element even in an event as "particular" as the salvation of the Jewish people. The "particular" reason for redemption is that God "loves" the Jewish people, which I think must be taken to mean that God rewards us for good deeds by us or our ancestors. The equally valid "universal" reason is that God intends to spread awareness of Him throughout the world, through the "kiddush hashem" that Israel is prominent and successful and worth taking note of.

The prophets Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel lived at about the same time and both talked extensively about redemption. But the paths to redemption they outlined were very different. For Yirmiyahu, repentance and a high moral standard would lead God to return to us, to "love" us. For Yechezkel, though, God would be forced to redeem us in order to protect His "reputation", even in the absence of good deeds. These two approaches seem to be reflected in the gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) which says that redemption will come when the Jewish people is either entirely good or entirely evil.

Thus, we describe the redemption both in universal terms ("for the sake of His name", i.e. to promote His worldwide reputation and profile) and particular terms ("with love"). Perhaps we mention both terms because we don't know in which of the two ways redemption will come. Or, more likely, because it will in fact come through a combination of both ways.

There is an interesting parallel in Moshe's first prayer after the Golden Calf sin. There Moshe asks God not to destroy the Jewish people for two reasons - so that Egypt not mock the Exodus, and because of the covenant with the Patriarchs. These two reasons are identical to those which we suggested will eventually bring about redemption.

3. Conclusion
King who helps, saves, and guards. Blessed are you, guard of Avraham.

I think that the last few words before "Blessed" have no independent significance. Rather, they form the "me'ein hachatimah" (essence of the conclusion) which must appear in a bracha immediately before its conclusion.

The phrase "guard of Avraham" paraphrases Breishit 15:1. There Avraham has just successfully raided the alliance of four kings and rescued Lot. God comes to reassure him (he's probably worried about retribution), saying: "Do not fear, Avram; I am your guard; your reward is very great." God's promise to Avraham, "I am your guard", is rephrased to form the conclusion to the bracha.

In the Torah, this verse introduces the famous passage of Brit Bein Habetarim - Covenant Between the Pieces - in which God promised to create a great people from Avraham's descendants, who will inherit the (future) land of Israel. This is an absolutely brilliant allusion with which to end the bracha. First of all, Brit Bein Habetarim was the first time Avraham (or any Jew) is recorded as having spoken to God. Thus it is a perfect prototype for us as we begin Shemonei Esrei, which is our chance to speak to God. Secondly, reference to Brit Bein Habetarim returns us to the content of the bracha - specifically to the covenant and to redemption, which are the subjects of the two "particular" lines of the bracha. The correspondence is so exact that one suspects that the entire bracha was planned around this extraordinarily evocative phrase, "magen avraham".

There seems to be no reference to the "universal" aspects of God in this conclusion. It therefore seems that the "real" purpose of the bracha is to initiate the particular, committed, loving relationship between God and the Jewish people who are praying to Him. At the same time, even as we personally are focusing on the "particular" aspect, we must remember that the "universal" aspect is just as real. It forms the center of our bracha, and in the Torah it is introduced first. It therefore seems to be just as fundamental as the particular aspect, even though it is not the object of our attention while praying.

Hayinu kecholmim

Listen to R' Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of Tzahal in 1967, talk about entering Jerusalem with the army, visiting the Temple Mount, and blowing the shofar at the Kotel.

(In Hebrew. Includes audio clips from 1967. Courtesy of moreshet.co.il)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Halacha for the 22nd century

A brilliant discussion of halachic possibilities which may soon become relevant, or which may become relevant in the distant future, or which will absolutely never be relevant but are entertaining nonetheless. Unfortunately it's no longer active.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Thoughts on Behar

There's a clear linguistic parallel between the Torah's commands for the omer and for the yovel:
  • Omer: "You shall count for you, from the day after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the 'omer hatenufa'; seven complete weeks they shall be; until the day after the seventh week you shall count 50 days." (Vayikra 23:15-16)
  • Yovel: "You shall count for you seven weeks of years, seven years seven times; and the days of seven sabbaths of years shall be for you forty and nine years." (Vayikra 25:8)

This parallel may hint at a deeper symbolic parallel.

The yovel cycle goes as follows: 49 years - yovel - 49 years - yovel. Therefore, every period of 49 years has a yovel year, in which people go free, both immediately before and after it.

It seems that for the omer, too, there is an event symbolizing freedom both immediately before and after. Right before the omer is pesach, when we went free from Egypt - that one is obvious. Right afterwards is shavuot, when we received the Torah. The midrash says "charut al haluchot - al tikra charut ela cherut", indicating that the torah is something which "makes you free". What this means in practical terms is not obvious. But perhaps we can say that there are two ways we can view the Torah - as a burden which restricts us from doing things we want to do, or as an opportunity to live one's life and influence the world according to a higher standard of morality. One who follows the (obviously preferable) second approach can indeed say that they are "more free" than they would have been before receiving the Torah.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thoughts on Behar/Bechukotai

This was supposed to be an addendum to a post on the structure of Sefer Vayikra. But that's still in progress so I'll just post this now.

In addition to their significance in Sefer Vayikra, parshiyot Behar/Bechukotai have special significance in terms of the larger structure of the Torah.

The end of Sefer Vayikra is an important juncture. Chronologically it seems to represent the last laws given at Sinai. Since (before the spies and the 40 years in the desert) the people were supposed to go straight from Sinai to Israel, this was originally meant to be basically the end of the Torah. The last few laws of Vayikra are a kind of concluding statement to the Torah, as well as an introduction to what should have come afterwards - the entry into and settlement of the land of Israel. Looking closely at this section, we will see aspects both of this conclusion and of this introduction.


These are all laws of social justice, but they have an interesting twist: they are phrased in such a way that they can only be applied in the land of Israel. This is an aspect we do not see in other parts of the Torah (even Devarim, despite its emphasis on the land of Israel). For example, parshat Mishpatim simply says that a slave must go free after six years - apparently a universal humanitarian law which could be applied anywhere. Whereas here at the end of Vayikra, the slave must go free (under slightly different circumstances) in order that he be able to return "to his family and to his ancestral land" (25:41). Were it not for this ancestral land, there would not seem to be a reason for him to go free. (In fact, in the absence of ancestral land to return to, this form of slavery is not practiced - see Arachin 29a.) The presumable social basis for these laws could apply anywhere, but according to their presentation here they are targeted specifically at the entry to Israel.

At the same time, these laws are introduced by saying they were commanded at Mount Sinai. Obviously these were not the only mitzvot given at Sinai, so the obvious question is why they in particular receive the "Mount Sinai" introduction. It seems that this is done in order to connect the blessings and curses in the next chapter to the Mount Sinai experience. The mitzvot which you will be rewarded for keeping and punished for ignoring are not just those of parshat Behar, but all the mitzvot given at Sinai, from parshat Yitro onwards.


The blessings and curses are a natural fit at the end of the Mount Sinai experience. After learning the nitty-gritty details of all the laws in the Torah, we step back and see the big picture of why we need to keep them - the "practical" reason of not wanting to be punished, as well as the "moral" reason of not wanting to betray the commitment we have made. At the same time, the blessings and curses are integrally related to the upcoming entry to Israel. Compare them, for example, to the very similar passage of blessings and curses in Devarim 28, right before the Jews actually did enter Israel. In both cases, the blessings and curses explain immediate consequences of this entry: either we behaving correctly and are rewarded in the land, or else disobey and are punished and exiled.

Arachin and Hekdesh

Many people find this final chapter of Vayikra puzzling. We just had a dynamite passage of blessings and curses, telling the dramatic story of the Jewish people's sin, exile, and redemption, and ending with the conclusive-sounding verse "These are the laws and statutes and instructions, which Hashem made between Him and the children of Israel, in Mount Sinai, by Moshe's hand." (26:46). There couldn't have been a better end to the book or to the whole Mount Sinai experience. But for some reason there is one last chapter, talking about the obscure laws of Temple property ("hekdesh") and vows according to a person's monetary value ("arachin"). What is the point of these weird laws, and why are they in such an awkward and anticlimactic location?

I think that beyond the technical details of these laws, there is a special symbolic meaning in their placement here, immediately after God has apparently finished giving us the Torah. It seems that these laws do not represent God's command, which has ended, but rather our response to that command. Similarly to "arachin", which are vows to give the Temple a sum equal to one's personal monetary value, here we voluntarily commit our "entire selves" to keeping the Torah whose presentation has just finished. And as with Temple property ("hekdesh") which cannot be put to any non-Temple use, having committed ourselves to a holy lifestyle, we recognize that the commitment is permanent and we can never back out.

The connection between these particular laws and the overall commitment you are making is not explicit, but if you think about it a little it is quite natural. In the previous chapter of blessings and curses, you had to listen to and absorb God's extended monologue. But religious life is not just about listening and absorbing. It is also about intuiting and creating. That is what you are called on to do in this chapter. The placement of these mitzvot is inexplicable until you put a little effort and creativity into teasing out and absorbing their symbolic meaning.

Sefer Vayikra has given us many chapters of precautions, warnings, and boundaries. But for every "shamor" there is a "zachor"; life must include initiative as well as precaution. The Mount Sinai experience began with the spontaneous commitment of "kol asher diber hashem naaseh", but after all the laws of Sefer Vayikra this attitude could easily have be forgotten. As the Israelites prepared in Sefer Bamidbar to conquer the land, they had to internalize that it is religiously appropriate to act as well as to refrain from acting. And after we modern Jews have spent two months reading Sefer Vayikra, which more than in Biblical times seems to be empty of practical significance, we must nevertheless enhance the vitality of our spiritual lives in preparation for whatever challenges await us today.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Strike three

Today I crossed a picket line for the first time in my life. My professor decided to hold class despite the ongoing strike, and I for one was happy to attend (along with the other grad students in class). Somehow the student association found out, and they sent three people to harass us until we were forced to leave the classroom for the safety of the professor's lab.

And for the first time, I was handed a flyer by someone who opposes the strike. Perhaps people are starting to realize what a stupid idea it was... or perhaps that's just wishful thinking on my part.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Global warming... or just local warming

Summer has reached Haifa, and I'm missing the altitude of Jerusalem or Gush Etzion, where it is often warm but there is much less in the way of humidity. For the first time in many years I'll have to live through a "real" summer without the benefit of air conditioning.

When I visited this apartment last summer in order to sign the lease, it slightly disturbed me that my landlord was wearing nothing but a pair of boxers at the time. It just seemed weird to greet potential business partners and to conclude a legal agreement while in your underwear.

But now I more than identify with his fashion sense, even if I'm not quite ready to dress that way myself. Right now I'm midway through preparing for Shabbat, and the prospect of wearing long pants and socks all day and tucking in my shirt and not showering is not appealing. If Eliyahu haNavi could walk around Haifa 2800 years ago not wearing a shirt, why can't I?

If only, like that one year in summer camp, there was a walk-in refrigerator which you could retreat to (and have a tasty snack in...) whenever the heat became unbearable.

On the plus side, our electricity bills will go down drastically. We're no longer inclined to shower in hot or even warm water, so we don't need to turn on the heater.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bread and butter issues

The conventional wisdom is that Israeli Arabs are poor, marginalized, and oppressed. I was never able to reconcile that assertion with my empirical observation that large numbers of Arabs seem to live in large mansions and own their own plots of land - both of which are very rare among Jews.

Apparently, though, Israeli Arabs in fact earn incomes which are up to four times what they report for tax purposes (the rest is earned on the "black market"). It's not clear whether the "four times" figure in fact reflects the entire Arab sector, but when officially reported Arab income is 70% of Jewish income, it seems that the average Arab may in fact be richer than the average Jew.

If you want to find real poverty in Israel, look at the charedim.

In other news, the Technion students (but not those of other universities) have decided to end the strike. The student leadership finally realized that though "the struggle must continue", striking hurts students more than anyone else. (I, or any of the students I normally talk to, could have told them that long ago.) I guess that's the thing about Israel. You can expect people here to act reasonably - but only after pursuing every other possible alternative.

UPDATE: they cancelled the cancelling of the strike. What the $#!@?

Thoughts on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Why exactly does the Torah forbid sexual actions such as incest? R' Elchanan Samet explains (near the bottom) that the sexual prohibitions are necessary in order to preserve the correct relations between different members of the family. If you are allowed to look at your family members as sexual objects, you may be unable to deal with them in the proper manner (as mothers or sisters or whatever). When the sexual option is made impossible, you are forced to respect them and relate to them as the close relatives, loved and respected, which they are. Eliminating the sexual option with these people thus makes possible a whole range of valuable and necessary family relationships.

I cannot decide to my own satisfaction whether or not this argument is correct. (For one thing, the punishment of death and/or extirpation seem pretty serious for a purely utilitarian law, though there are parallels such as the punishment for cursing parents.) If true, however, it would go a long way towards solving the anomalies of this part of Sefer Vayikra, as can be seen in the following examples.

1) The most striking difficulty with the sexual prohibition passages is that they include several non-sexual prohibitions. Right in the middle of chapter 18 is a commandment not to deliver your son to the "Molech" (18:21). In chapter 20 the Molech prohibition appears again (20:2-5), and there is a double prohibition (20:6 and 20:27) against consulting an "Ov or Yidoni" (i.e. magical communication with the dead). What are these non-sexual crimes doing right in the middle of the sexual crime laws?

The obvious halachic problem with Molech worship, and I believe also with Ov/Yidoni, is that they are idolatrous. But among the types of idolatry mentioned in the Torah, these seem to be unique in that they involve members of your family. Molech worship obvious involves your son, and Ov/Yidoni presumably focuses on your ancestors. In this they are similar to the sexual crimes, which also involve your family.

Assuming as before that the purpose of the sexual prohibitions is to protect the family, it is easy to see why Molech worship is included with the sexual sins. Killing children on a routine basis is, after all, quite damaging - obviously for the children involved, and it probably leads to unhealthy attitudes towards the other children (you're next!) and towards other people in general. Just as a sexual relationship with your mother would prevent you from treating her as mothers deserve to be be treated, the possibility of child sacrifice might prevent you from treating your children with the attitude they require. Therefore both are forbidden in the same passage.

Similarly, I think we can explain why Ov/Yidoni is included with the sexual prohibitions, but first we must look at the final mention of Ov/Yidoni in our parsha.

2) The prohibition of Ov/Yidoni appears once again in close proximity to the sexual prohibitions (in the "kedoshim tihyu" section, verse 19:31). It is immediately followed there by the command to "rise before the aged, and honor the elderly" (19:32). The juxtaposition of these two laws seems odd, but there may be a deep connection between them.

The Ov/Yidoni is an attempt at communication with the dead, and the dead are simply elderly people who are so elderly that they have died. In general, we are commanded to respect and perhaps seek guidance from those people who have the wisdom of age, who bear the tradition, and who created us and supported us when we were younger. At the same time, we are equally commanded not to "pervert" this respect by apportioning it not to our elders, but to their elders who are no longer alive. If we do so, given the inherent meaningless of "communicating" with ghosts, then all the social benefits of respecting the aged are lost. Prohibiting Ov/Yidoni may therefore be a means of promoting the correct kind of relationship with our elders, while excluding self-serving "relationships" based on magical incantations and alleged paranormal instructions from above. This idea is supported by Devarim 18, which contrasts sorcery (including Ov/Yidoni) and true prophecy as possible sources of guidance.

If so, then it is easy to explain why Ov/Yidoni is included among the sexual laws. Just like the sexual prohibitions make it possible to have meaningful relationships with family members of the opposite sex, and the Molech prohibition helps preserve the correct attitude towards one's children, the prohibition of Ov/Yidoni promotes the proper attitudes one should have towards one's elders. Apparently no human relationship is danger-free, and for virtually every member of family and society there must be a law channeling your relationship with them in a constructive direction.

3) The lists of sexual prohibitions are very male-centric. Granted, a woman can figure out that "you shall not uncover your mother's nakedness" prevents her from consorting with her son. But in a literal sense, the prohibition is addressed only to the son. Assuming as before that the purpose of sexual laws is to protect meaningful relationships within the family, we can explain the focus on men in terms of what men and women tend to look for in sexual relationships. Men are more likely to pursue purely their lusts without making any emotional commitment; since these relationships are not stable or meaningful the Torah emphatically restricts them. But women tend to demand emotional commitment in any sexual relationship they enter. If it were up to the women, then even incestuous or unnatural relationships might not necessarily destroy the family. Thus, the prohibitions as a rule focus on men and not women.

4) This model also helps in explaining various notable details among the prohibitions. Don't put me down as having encouraged lesbian marriage, but it seems that the Torah does not prohibit it explicitly because it would be more likely than homosexual male marriage to lead to a stable and successful family structure.

5) More strikingly, exactly one prohibition (bestiality) is separately addressed to women, in both chapters 18 and 20. A woman might be inclined to form a meaningful relationship even with a family member, and thus does not need to be warned against meaningless sexual relations with him. But she certainly cannot form a meaningful relationship with an animal. In this one case, the woman as well as the man must be warned that the relationship is forbidden.


Nearly every line of this post includes a dash of conjecture, and I'm not absolutely convinced that any of it is correct. But it does seem to move a number of verses from the "totally inexplicable" to the "reasonable conjecture" category. That in itself is a reasonable accomplishment, even if final proof will have to wait until some other time.