The Erasing of Moses’ Name

This is the part of the Torah during which I start to see eyes glazed over and have people ask me, “What significance do these readings have?” The truth is there is something very special about Parshat Tetzvaeh-it is the only Torah portion in Exodus through Deuteronomy in which Moses is not mentioned by name! Rather the first verse of the portion reads “YOU (Moses) command the people Israel!”
Why is Moses not given the prestige of being addressed by name in Parshat Tetzaveh. The Tosafot say it has to do with the golden calf escapade in next week’s portion. G-d wanted to destroy the Israelites after the creation of the calf, but Moses interceded, making a bargain with G-d. Moses said, “And now lift up their sin, and if not, erase me from the book you have written.” G-d replied, “Fine, I will not destroy the people but I will erase your name from a parsha.” One of the principles of the rabbis is that the Torah is not written in chronological order, so the section with the golden calf could have preceded Parshat Tetzaveh and the description of the tabernacle.

This sounds like a reasonable solution yet I wonder if G-d would be so fickle as to erase Moses’ name because of a bargain that saved the people! Another explanation can be found in the fact that G-d says “all who sin against me shall be destroyed.” Perhaps in the process of sinning against the Israelites Moses sinned against G-d, declaring that his name should be erased from the holy Torah. He also smashed the tablets, which were written by G-d’s hand, thereby destroying the holy work of the almighty. I can see G-d saying to Moses “You destroy my tablets? Then I will remove your name, your identity, from part of my holy book.”

What are the key lessons we can learn from this episode? One is to be careful about what you wish for: Moses saying “Erase me from your book” leads to G-d replying “Fine, I’ll erase you!” The other lesson is to act slowly and purposefully, keeping one’s emotions in check. Rather than smashing the tablets, Moses should have stopped, taken a deep breath and thought about how to constructively respond to the situation. We can learn from both of these lessons that even our greatest leaders have challenges and that through slowing down and responding appropriately, we can achieve a more favorable result. Let us keep our names, our true identities, at the forefront of who we are, rather than risking their getting erased.

Make Me a Sanctuary

Why of all things would God want Israel to make Him a Sanctuary? After all, King Solomon said in 1 Kings 8 “the heavens cannot contain you, how much more this house that I have built!” Yet this is exactly what God wants, for in this week’s portion he commands Moses “let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” If God is everywhere, unbound by space, then why create a home for Him?

The commentator Menachem ibn Zerach, from 14th century Spain, commented in his book Tzedak Laderkh that the text does not say “that I may dwell in its midst (betocho) but rather among them (betocham.) This demonstrates that God’s presence does not rest on the sanctuary by virtue of the sanctuary but by virtue of Israel, for they are the temple of God.” As the servants of God, we play an important role. From our actions, we can either uplift God’s name or defame God’s name.

Malbim, a 19th century Hasidic Russian commentator, takes the image one step further. He asserts that the true מקדש, or Sanctuary, is in the recesses of one’s heart-that each of us should prepare ourselves to be a dwelling place for God and a stronghold for the excellency of His Presence, as well as an altar on which to offer up every portion of his soul to God. Such a reading is surprising to many of us. We are so used to the מקדש as being a consecrated place on which animals are slaughtered and today where prayers are given to God, not our own bodies as serving as that Sanctuary.

Even though we tend to think of places as sacred rather than people, there is merit to the latter. The belief that the body is a Temple is profound, for it indicates that our bodies are not our own to use as we please but rather need to serve a higher purpose. Each fiber of our being is supposed to be utilized for a godly purpose, to serve the will of our creator. As we say each Shabbat morning, כל עצמותי תאמרנה ה מי כמוך, “all of my bones cry out, God who is like you?” True God dwells in a Temple, but not just the shul, for God can be found in each person who does מצוות and helps those around him/her.

A song by Randy Scruggs and John Thompson, originally intended for Church worship, has become commonplace in some liberal minyanim. The song goes like this: “LORD prepare me to be a Sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true, and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, Sanctuary for you.” The purpose of this song is not to annul the role of worship within a church or synagogue but rather to indicate that God can be found dwelling in each and every one of us wherever we are at. Our job is to be a servant of God, doing exactly what God wants from us even when it is difficult. This is the message of Sefer Ha-Hinuch, the Book of Education, published anonymously in 13th century Spain, which states “God desires us to perform His commandments for not other reason but to promote our own well-being.” He references Deuteronomy 10:12-13, which asserts that following the commandments is for our own good. It is to our advantage to create a society where we are watching out for those who are vulnerable and need our help. Similarly, it is in our best interest to watch what we eat, to take time to rest, to let our land lie fallow. However, the author of Sefer HaHinuch is aware of how easy it is for us to go astray. That is why he comments that a Sanctuary is needed, “a place of the highest purity to purify the thoughts of man and reform his character.” While we should be serving God in all our deeds, both inside and outside the synagogue, at times we need a holy place such as this to center and redirect us in living the way God wants us to.

As I anticipate becoming a father, I think of the lessons I want to teach my child, of how I want to communicate that life has a higher purpose and that we were brought into this world to do holy, important and Godly work. I want to demonstrate that it is not just in a synagogue that we are the agent of God but rather with every fiber of our being each and every day of our lives. Our task is to create a dwelling place for God everywhere we go, where God can look at us and say “you’ve set a good example-this is a person who I am worthy of dwelling in his/her midst.” May this be our Terumah, our own personal contribution to the world.

An Eye for an Eye

A quotation often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi is “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In other words, when you are wronged or oppressed, you should utilize Satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, rather than resorting to violence. Civil disobedience as a defined term goes back at least as far as Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century and was epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr. just over 50 years ago. It’s very easy to say don’t fight violence with violence-that is, except when you are being attacked.

Judaism presents a very different approach to how to respond to an attacker. We know the famous rabbinic reference הבא להרגך השכם להרגו, “When one comes to kill you, arise to kill him.”[1]  In a similar vein we have this week’s reference to the penalty for damages: “If damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”[2] Sounds pretty fair and straightforward, right?

Those who know rabbinic exegesis on the Bible might think that the rabbis would love this. After all, one of their core principles is מידה כנגד מידה, measure for measure. This is basically “what goes around comes around,” that what you do to others will be done to you. It is therefore surprising to discover that this line of reasoning does not sit well with the rabbis, who reinterpret this biblical verse!

Starting with Talmud Bava Kama,[3] we see the following Mishnah: “One who injures another becomes liable (monetarily) to the other for five items: damage, pain, healing, loss of time and embarrassment.” In other words, injuries, or נזיקים, require monetary compensation. The Gemara, or commentary on this Mishnah, asks Why? Don’t we know in the Torah “an eye for an eye?” The response is Do not let this enter your mind, for look at the following example. Leviticus teaches “He who smites a beast shall make pay.”[4] Just as in the case of a beast one must pay compensation, so too in the case of a person one must pay compensation.

Now wait a second. This might be fine except the Gemara cuts out the second half of the verse! The verse in its entirety reads “He who smites a beast shall pay, but he who smites a person shall be killed!” Through cutting the second half of the verse, we change its entire meaning! Luckily, the Gemara recognizes that this might not satisfy us and brings in another reason why an eye for an eye means monetary compensation. In Numbers[5] it states “You shall not accept ransom for the life of a murderer.” The rabbis take this to mean that you cannot take ransom, or money, only for a murderer but anyone guilty of manslaughter or injuring another can pay through monetary compensation.

Why make two arguments, each of which appears to be weak? I believe it is because the rabbis, like us, were uncomfortable with the idea of exacting punishment in exactly the same way the offense occurred. They couldn’t get rid of the verse, for this is the holy Torah, so instead they reinterpreted it and (for those who did not buy the reinterpretation) they limited its applicability, as they did for the rebellious son. By stating that each of these examples was equal to a monetary amount equal to the offense committed, the rabbis administered justice for the offense while not doing it in the exact way proscribed by the Bible, a way with which they were uncomfortable.

What do we do when we’re uncomfortable with taking a text literally-especially if it’s a text that the rabbis did take literally? How do we balance making changes that we need to live in our modern society with not forsaking or abandoning the Torah? I would argue for us to follow in the rabbis’ exegetical traditions in keeping the text as it stands but in reinterpreting it in a way that it makes sense for our lives. Some would argue that this position is sacrilegious, as our generation is so much lower than previous ones in terms of our knowledge of Torah, so what gives us the right to reinterpret in the way they did? I would argue differently-that if we are not constantly reinterpreting, making changes from within the framework of Torah and Halacha, than we are following a tradition that is stale and which has lost its meaning. Yes it’s a slippery slope and one which must only be done with extreme caution and with utmost respect for those who came before us. However, I believe that it is a slope worth standing on. I would much rather make changes from within the bounds of tradition than to refuse any changes[6] and have people say “This no longer applies to me”; in other words to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is not just me talking-a common phrase in the Talmud used for deciding Halacha is פוק חזי; to go out and see what the people are doing. Let us find ways to follow the rabbis’ example of revering Torah and tradition while concurrently utilizing exegetical reinterpretation to create a living Judaism. After all, the Torah says “You shall live by them,”[7] which the rabbis interpret as “Live by them-Don’t die by them.”[8]

[1] Numbers Rabbah, 21:4. This is in Chapter 3 of Midrash Tanhuma Pinchas referring to the verse צרור את המדינים והכיתם אותם.

[2] Exodus 21:23-25

[3] 83b

[4] Leviticus 24:21

[5] Numbers 35:31

[6] A point of view which unfortunately is becoming more common based upon the Hatam Sofer’s statement חדש אסור מן התורה, that innovation is forbidden from the Torah. That statement first appears in Talmud Kiddushin 38b

[7] Leviticus 18:15

[8] Sanhedrin 74a. Note that this only applies to violating a commandment to save your life (and the rabbis disagree about which commandments one must die for). It is often taken by liberal rabbis (like me) further-that we need to set halachic boundaries that our communities can live by-not the original intent of the passage.

A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation

One of my favorite lines in this week’s portion has always been “and you shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim (priests) and a holy nation.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts that this phrase is “the shortest, simplest, most challenging mission statement of the Jewish people.”[1] What does it mean to serve G-d as a kingdom of Kohanim, especially in light of the fact that most Israelites are not Kohanim? Rashi from 11th century France defines the word “Kohen” as a prince, referencing 2nd Samuel, [2] where it states that David’s sons were Kohanim. We know that David was descended from the tribe of Judah, not from Levi as Kohanim were, so therefore the term Kohen must have an alternative meaning.

Nachmanides, from 13th century Barcelona, has a different understanding, writing that Kohen means servant. Our people’s task as they are about to receive G-d’s Torah is to commit to being His servants. G-d made us free from slavery so that we would serve Him wholeheartedly, as a Kohen must serve G-d through the offering of sacrifices.

The interpretation that I prefer is that of Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, of 16th century Italy. He interprets Kohanim as “instructing the entire human race that we should all call out in the name of G-d and to serve Him with one accord. Each of us is a Kohen of G-d,[3] instructed to teach Torah and live life in the most ethical manner. In being given the Torah, our task is to spread monotheism and our service of G-d to all the people of the world, to be the active agents of G-d, the “G-d Squad” if you will. This is a democratized process, not limited to the work of the Kohanim but rather one which applies to every Israelite.

The key is the democratization-that we are a “kingdom of Kohanim.” The obligation to follow a higher ethical and moral standard is not limited to a small subset of our people but rather applies to each and every one of us. G-d wants us to stick together as a people, united in our bringing His presence into the world.

Why then is the word Kohen used? Perhaps it is because Kohanim had to hold themselves to higher religious standards than Israelites. They were more limited in terms of what they could eat, who they could marry and where they could go. Unlike other Israelites they could not own their own land or venture off to acquire more material possessions. These restrictions were meant to focus them on the spiritual task of serving G-d and atoning for the wrongdoings of the Israelite community. Furthermore, the Kohanim had to be pure, without blemishes. All of Israel was meant to emulate the Kohanim-not to follow their restrictions but to conduct their affairs scrupulously, with honor and out of devotion to G-d.

The second part of the verse, being a גוי קדוש, a holy nation, is far less commented upon yet I believe equally as intriguing. What does it mean to be holy? No one’s 100 percent sure-it’s one of those things that you know when you see it. Many commentators define holiness as being “set apart.”[4] This makes sense when you think about the interplay in rabbinic literature between the גוים, all the other nations of the world, and the גוי אחד, the one, unique nation of Israel. Every weekday morning and afternoon, we pray that G-d שומר גוי אחד ושומר גוי קדוש, protect the one nation and protect the holy nation which is set apart from all others. In being a גוי קדוש, our actions need to be such that they separate us from the societal norms. This is not to say that we are any better than anyone else but rather that as a people we need to follow a high ethical and moral standard.

How many times have you cringed when you’ve heard of a Jew who did something illegal or unethical? How many times have you wondered if someone’s actions are “bad for the Jews”? We inherently know that we are a גוי קדוש, one nation which is supposed to rightly or wrongly follow a supreme moral example in our service of G-d. Our ancestors resolutely committed to it, proclaiming נעשה ונשמע, WE WILL DO AND WE WILL HEAR. This is of course easier said than done, as we see with the creation of the Golden Calf 40 days after Moses went up Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. However, we resolutely made the statement that we strive to observe G-d’s will and set an example for all the other nations.

Let us think of ways that we can fulfill this mission statement, being united as a people in service of the Almighty and striving to always live in accordance with a high code of ethics. When we see a member of our community going astray, let us gently but firmly fulfill הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך, taking him/her aside and asking him/her to correct his/her behavior. May we every day emulate the precept of נעשה ונשמע, actively working to make this world more G-dly, more righteous, more ethical and more spiritual.

[1] Jonathan Sacks,  Covenant & Consersation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible Exodus: The Book of Redemption London, England: Maggid Books & The Orthodox Union, 2010), p. 131.

[2] 2 Samuel 8:18

[3]Based off Isaiah 61:6

[4] See Rashi on Leviticus 19:2