Friday, March 30, 2007

Parashat Tzav : Terumat Hadeshen - Out with the Bad!

Thinking Torah
By Rav Alex Israel ;
5767/ Shabbat Hagadol

Parashat Tzav
Terumat Hadeshen: Out with the Bad.

The opening Mitzva of this parasha has always fascinated me. It is the Mitzva of Terumat Hadeshen. To cut a long story short, the Mitzva is a Temple ritual in which a small volume of ash is removed every morning from the altar, the Mizbeach. The Ash is then placed at the side of the Mizbeach. This ash is then disposed of outside the camp.[1]

What is the logic behind this symbolic ritual?

But before we approach that question, we should read the opening passage of the Parasha (Vayikra 6:1-5) in its entirety, for it gives this Mitzva a wider context; It does not simply talk about the Terumat Hadeshen. The Torah would seems to focus primarily upon the "fire of the Altar."

"The fire on the Altar must burn upon it, you may not extinguish it; and the Kohein shall burn wood upon it every morning, and set the Olah upon it, and the fats of the Shelamim. Fire must burn upon it continually; it may not be extinguished!"

The verses are quite emphatic. Two mitzvot are stressed here:
1. The fire must be continuous.
2. The Priests must keep it going by supplying the altar with wood.[2]

Now one fascinating thing here is the fact that the heading here is "Zot Torat HaOlah." Despite the fact that the Olah is mentioned here, it has little to do with the Olah and is more connected to the reality of the Altar!

So what is really happening here? What is the connection between the Olah and the ashes? (And between the ashes and the "eternal," ongoing state of the fire upon the altar?)

It would seem that I am in a rather Pesach-focussed state of mind, and hence the notion of the deliberate and exacting removal of the ash from the Mizbeach reminded me of our action of removing Chametz. Are we removing the "waste," purging the corruption from a place of holiness?

Is there a connection?

The Sefat Emet develops a fascinating symbolic reading here. He quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma: "The Olah is brought (to atone for) the thoughts and musings of the heart." The mind is at the centre here. (The Sefer Hachinuch follows a similar direction too!) And so what is meant here?

The Sefat Emet offers two lessons:

1. The need to constantly "feed" the fire of our mind and spirit:

"the Kohein shall burn wood upon it every morning: ...We must seek out, each morning, new methods and ideas in order to clarify truth - THAT is the wood (to be added to the fire) each morning... Rashi states that even though fire may descend from heaven, nonetheless there is a command that fire be brought from a regular source (by human initiative.) For in truth in the heart of every Jew, one may find a source of fire, in the dimension of Torah that exists within the Jewish soul, however, in order that that small source, that focal point, might spread throughout the body, one needs methods, techniques, strategies. In addition, one needs genuine desire to annul all other aims in life let alone God's Will." (5637)

So here the Sefat Emet talks about the need for constant renewal, rekindling of our soul's energies. Moreover, whereas we do receive a certain spiritual sensitivity from God, unless we make a daily effort, the "Eternal Flame" of our soul is in danger of extinguishing!

Which brings me to the Sefat Emet's second point:

2. Purging Evil

The Sefat Emet notes a certain duality in the act of Terumat Hadeshen, a sense that two poles meet here. On the one hand, the Terumat Hadeshen is simply ash, waste... it is taken outside the camp and disposed of. It would appear to be a sample of all the ash of the Temple, all that must be burnt, with the negative symbolism of disposal of toxic fallout - undesirable ash. It has a negative reverberation. But on second thought, the fact that Terumat Hadeshen takes place in the morning makes it the FIRST act of Avoda - worship - of the day. Does that count for anything. It is called "Teruma" which has the etymology of R"M indicating raising, lifting, elevating. Moreover, it is disposed of in a Makom Tahor - a pure place! It would appear to be genuinely positive!

What is the secret of this ambivalence?

The Sefat Emet notes that the Terumat Hadeshen comes at the end of the night, during which all the previous day's sacrifices have burnt throughout the night. Now, after the burning comes a "raising."

"The Mitzva of raising the ash is because in accordance with the burning of the extraneous, the waste, the superfluous; One then discovers the holiness of Man." (5636)

"The Olah comes (to atone) for the thoughts of the mind; as the Zohar says: 'That is the Olah: the bad thoughts of a person that are burned on the Altar." This refers to the burning of the sin offering! However, in the aftermath of the burning of the "yeast" (the evil inclination) one needs to raise the ash, because every descent is there to precipitate an ascent. Everything has a place in God's creation, as they say: "He (God) creates darkness", and so by burning the evil, one reaches the good ... and hence the raising of the ash is the ultimate purpose of the Sacrifice." (5635)

The second principle of the Sefat Emet is that we need regularly to purge, to purify ourselves by a cathartic process of removal of the bad that we have within us. Indeed, this process is hard (and takes place at "night") but the aim is to arrive in the morning at a point in which we may be raised and may ascend to the Almighty. Sometimes we must recognise that we do contain evil that must be burnt, to allow our goodness to shine. After the cathartic process of the fire, we may approach God.


On Pesach too, we burn the Chametz that has been "left" unguarded, unrestrained, to rise. And we "guard" the Matzot, a symbol of God in our lives. After we burn and remove all leaven, we are ready to usher in the night of our Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] See the Mishna in Tamid 1:2-4 for details.
[2] In fulfilment, of this verse, along with the morning Korban Tamid – which is an Olah – a massive fire was created, and in the afternoon two extra pieces of wood were added to the fire of the Mizbeach. See Rambam Hilchot Temidim Umasafim ch.2 and Tamid ch.2

Friday, March 09, 2007

Gates Of Righteousness

My Grandfather was in hospital thsi week. Thank God he is back home and Be"H on the mend. However, I wanted to relate what we saw on Purim at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital. I was there at 10:00 a.m. My wife and kids were at the hospital in the afternoon. All day, groups, individuals - dressed up, with guitars, delivering mishloach manot, visiting, people volunteering to read the Megilla - all day the hospital was flooded with many hundreds of do-gooders who came to offer some Purim cheer to those who were stuck in a hospital bed on a festive holiday.

Purim is usually quite a busy day during which one must make time to hear the Megilla, to make deliveries to friends and relatives, to have the seuda which takes a good part of the afternoon. On these days there is a tendency to self involvement.

But at the hospital, it just seemed like so many simple people, youth and adults of Jerusalem were just so kind and thoughtful, making space in their busy day to offer time to help those less fortunate.

פתחו לי שערי צדק אבוא בם אודה -ה
זה השער לה' צדיקים יבואו בו

The portal to God is one of kindness. May God bless all these special people.

Parashat Ki Tissa: Moses' Prayer

From a theological perspective, the notion of Man arguing with the Almighty is the epitome of absurdity. But in Chumash it is the most elementary and natural gesture: Man can pray to God, argue with, debate, and even accuse God! Every Jewish schoolchild takes this point for granted. And from whom do they learn this radical principle? From Moshe Rabbeinu[1].

At the Golden Calf, (and subsequently after the debacle of the Spies,) God pronounced a devastating decree of imminent death against the entire nation of Israel. Moshe reacted immediately by approaching God, as he took up the defence of Israel. Praying? - No! Confronting, persuading, insisting, that Israel be saved. Relentless, he succeeds and averts the awful decree. Moshe, the towering figure of Chumash, is bestowed with many honoured titles expressing his leadership, however one particular appellation stands out in its boldness. Moshe is described as the "Defender of Israel[2]."

What are the tools of Moses' art of confronting the Almighty? Indeed, how does he seem to succeed in changing the pronouncement of the "Judge of the Universe?"


1. First Shemot 32:8-14. (In truth the dialogue with God continues throughout ch.33-34)
· If God initially intends to destroy Am Yisrael, then why does he retract that intention?
· List the arguments Moshe uses at the Egel. What is the basis of each point? How does Moshe succeed in changing God's mind?


Here at the Egel, the Golden Calf we witness a most fascinating exchange between Moshe and Hakadosh Baruch Hu. God tells Moshe:

"Hurry down, for your people, who you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely … they have made themselves a molten calf and bowed down to it and sacrificed to it … I see this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let me be , that My anger blaze against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation." (32:8-10)

We should not minimise the enormity of the threat here. God has decided here to kill the entire nation, leaving only Moshe alive to serve as the beginning of a new Jewish people! Moshe is not willing to accept this scenario, and he immediately rises to the defence of the nation:

(11)…Why, O Lord, let Your anger blaze forth against Your people , whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. (12) Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.' Turn from your blazing anger and renounce your intent to punish Your people! (13) Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how you swore to them … ' I will make your offspring numerous as the stars of the heaven, and I will give your offspring the whole land of which I spoke to possess forever.' (14) And the Lord renounced His punishment that he planned to bring upon His people." (32:10-14)


In three verses Moshe manages to reverse the fortune of the Jewish nation. Three critical verses transform God's decree:

"Now, let me be , that My anger blaze against them and that I may destroy them"


"And the Lord renounced His punishment that he planned to bring upon His people"

How did Moshe do it? Let us analyse this passage.

In this masterful speech, each line skilfully aimed to target a new line of defence. If we analyse Moshe's speech here, we can identify THREE distinct lines of argument. Two of the arguments are self-evident the third is more subtle.

Passuk 12 presents the first argument. It relates to God's world reputation to the world, His public "image." Moshe relates to the stated goals of the Exodus. Yetziat Mitzrayim was aimed at proving God's supremacy to the Egyptians: “By this you shall know that I AM THE LORD’.” (7:17) If God kills the people in the Midbar, he will be demonstrating that he is a capricious cruel deity and not a dependable benevolent God. If God will enact the Exodus and then kill the people it will not merely be a tragedy for Bnei Yisrael, it will be an affront to the concept of a God committed to liberty, covenant and kindness[3]. God will be seen as "evil."

Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.'

And hence, Moshe argues, even if the Israelites deserve the worst punishment, the effect on God's world reputation will be devastating. God's hands are tied. God cares about what Man thinks about Him, and since the death of the Israelites will be viewed as the absolute failure of God, God will have to resign his plan.

That is the first line of defence.


Verse 13 presents Moshe's second argument. This one addresses God's prior commitments, God's promises - what we know as "Covenant." Throughout Sefer Bereishit[4] God repeatedly promises the Patriarch's two specific things. These two things are consistent. They are the LAND of Canaan, and an OFFSPRING (in Hebrew, ZERA) who will inherit and live in that Land. God establishes these promises in the form of a covenant.

What is a covenant? In modern terminology we would talk about a treaty, a pact or a contract between two parties. When God makes a covenant with Avraham or with Am Yisrael, he is signing a treaty with us. He is binding Himself with a set of commitments to man. And this is certainly remarkable, radical! The all-powerful, all-knowing God decides to commit himself contractually to man. But God does this.

Now, Moshe utilises this covenant. He says to God, You promised to the patriarchs that their offspring will be numerous and inherit the land. If you kill everyone, then how will you fulfil your promise? Are you intending to wait another 500 years? In other words, Moshe says to God, You have prior commitments. You are bound by contract to the ongoing survival of the Jewish People! You simply cannot destroy the Children of Israel.

Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how you swore to them … ' I will make your offspring numerous as the stars of the heaven, and I will give your offspring the whole land


We have explained verse 12 and 13. Verse 14 gives us the resolution. How do we explain verse 11? What does verse 11 add to the debate? With a close reading of the text, we can identify a third argument, and a very subtle but powerful debate between Moshe and God that drives to the very heart of the God-Israel relationship.

Let us begin with a mashal – a regular life situation – which might exemplify the debate here. Imagine a house where a parent is finding the children unusually difficult. A parent might turn to their spouse and say, "The kids are driving me crazy." However, when the kids irritate a parent to the point of despair, a parent might turn to their spouse and yell: "YOUR kids are driving me crazy!" Why do we do this? At times we disassociate ourselves from the source of our distress by a process of dis-ownership, a form of rejection. In our story here, God does this too! Let us look at the text. He says to Moshe:

(7) Hurry down, for YOUR people, who YOU brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely…

What is God saying here? God says to Moshe, they're yours! They are YOUR people, who YOU brought out from Egypt. God is disassociating Himself from the Jewish nation! He acts as if it's Moshe's problem!

It is here that we begin to see the power of verse 11. How does Moshe reply in his prayer?

(11) Why, O Lord, let your anger blaze forth against YOUR people , whom YOU delivered from the land of Egypt

In other words, Moses is saying to God: It is YOUR people, not mine. YOU brought them from Egypt, not me! You cannot dis-own the people. They are not my people, says Moshe! You cannot escape the fact that the nation is God's nation!

So to summarise, we have 3 arguments:

1. God- they are YOUR nation; your responsibility!
2. What will Egypt say?
3. The promise to the Patriarchs.

The combination of these three formidable arguments achieves the desired effect. Moshe's pleas are met with a happy end. God is "persuaded!" The imminent danger of destruction is averted.

[1] Maybe the first character to really challenge God's judgement is Avraham in his prayers for Sedom – Bereshit ch.18.
[2] Shemot Rabba 43:1; Yalkut Shimoni Ekev #852.
[3] This is the concept that we nowadays call Kiddush and Chillul Hashem. The notion of God caring what the nations think is widespread in Tanach: See Devarim 32:26-27; Yehoshua 7:9, Melachim I 20:28, Yirmiyahu 20:44, Yechezkel 20:44, 36:16-36, Tehillim 79:10, 115:2. I hope to devote a future shiur to this topic – It is currently half written. For now, you can look at Nechama Leibowitz "Studies in Bamidbar" pgs. 157-163.
[4] see Bereshit 12:7, 13:15-16, 15:4-5, 7, 14-21; 17:7-8, 26:4; 28:13-14; 35:12

Thursday, March 01, 2007

קיימו וקבלו

Many Divrei Torah have been written presenting intricate ideas based on the concept of קיימו וקבלו in relation to Purim.

The Gemara reads:

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר א"ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב"ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם א"ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא אמר רבא אעפ"כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר

"And they stood at the foot ( lit. the underside) of the mountain (Mt. Sinai) ... God held the mountain over them like a vat and said to them, "If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, your burial place will be there."... But they accepted it again [voluntarily] in the days of Achashveirosh, as it says, "The Jews established and accepted" they established in the days of Achashverosh what they had already accepted at Sinai (Shabbat 88a).

I think that this Gemara presents a rather simple truth.

At Mount Sinai, the nation had experienced ten plagues, God had freed them from their Egyptian taskmasters, they had miraculously crossed the Reed Sea, God had fed them water and Manna in the desert. He had saved them from Amalek. Now, they stand amidst the impressive spectacle of Mount Sinai. They are far from objective. They are "under the influence" of an enormous kindness and power that God had showered upon them in a concentrated period. It was "as if" God had forced them to keep the Torah. They had been brainwashed, "wow"ed beyond all reasonable logic. Who would not have wanted to accept the Torah?

The time of Purim is very different. We are in exile. The nation has been dispersed after 800 years of sovereignty; the Temple has been destroyed. Jews are now spread throughout a wide geographic expanse, from Egypt to Persia. They have good reason to wonder whether they will ever regain their honour, their land, their future as a nation! And now, they face the threat of annihilation by Haman who mobilises the entire imperial mechanism to wipe them out. Who would want to identify as a Jew? Who would want to wear a kippa in the street? WHo would want to live a life of Torah? The outlook was bleak, the dangers considerable. In Shushan, after the Hurban and the threat of Haman, whoever continued to practice Judaism, to identify as a Jew, did it only out of choice out of desire. After all, they had every excuse to quit. It was certainly unglamorous, unpopular, and downright dangerous to be a Jew.

No! קיימו וקבלו - The nation elected, against all odds, to continue to be the Jewish people!

... And that is a good reason as any, to celebrate!

23 Million Hamentaschen!

Globes (Israel's financial newspaper) reports that Israelis will consume 23 million oznei haman this year, at a cost of NIS 31 million.

Bakeries said the favorite fillings for oznei haman were poppy seed, dates, walnut cream, and chocolate. Other fillings include strawberry and halva.