הַלְה’ תִּגְמְלוּ-זֹאת עַם נָבָל וְלֹא חָכָם הֲלוֹא הוּא אָבִיךָ קָּנֶךָ הוּא עָשְׂךָ וַיְכֹנְנֶךָ
“Do you thus requite the Lord?!… Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure?” (32:6).
This passuk appears to underscore BNY’s lack of gratitude toward Hashem; their abandoning and rejecting the “Father” who turned them into a nation and gave them all that they possessed.In the middle of this verse, the shira describes BNY as an “am naval ve-lo chacham” – which roughly translates as, “a despicable and unwise people.”
BNY is called out on on two matters: moral depravity (נָבָל – despicable) and foolishness (וְלֹא חָכָם – unwise). Read in context, the first adjective seems a more fitting description of BNY’s behavior than the second one. As stated, the verse seems to highlight BNY’s ungratefulness to G-d – as expressed by their rejection of Him – in spite of the ongoing kindness He showered upon them. Such ungratefulness clearly warrants the description of “despicable.”
But why does the verse also describe the nation as “unwise”? How does the lack of demonstrating gratitude make a person unwise?
The Ramban, expounding Targum Onkelos, associates the word “naval” with a term found earlier in the Torah, in Sefer Shmot (18:18) - “navol tibol” – which refers to fatigue, or weariness. The description of BNY as an “am naval” refers to them having “wearied themselves in intense fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah,” in the words of the Ramban; the perceived burden that G-d’s laws had become on their shoulders, prompting them to resort to other, new, foreign modes of religious worship. The Ramban says that were we wise, we would recognize that casting off Hashem only hurts us, not Hashem.
יִזְבְּחוּ לַשֵּׁדִים לֹא אֱלֹהַּ אֱלֹהִים לֹא יְדָעוּם חֲדָשִׁים מִקָּרֹב בָּאוּ לֹא שְׂעָרוּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶם
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they have never known, new ones, who came but lately, whom your fathers never feared. (32:17)
The verse emphasizes the novelty of these idols; the fact that Am Yisrael had not previously discovered these false deities. At first glance, this emphasis is meant to underscore the gravity of the transgression – that BNY substituted Hashem, with Whom they had a unique relationship with for centuries – with foreign deities with whom they had never previously associated. But in light of the explanation of the Ramban, we can interpret this verse as explaining why BNY resorted to new, foreign religions: specifically because they were new and foreign. BNY grew tired of their relationship with the one, true G-d and the mitzvot He commanded; they felt the time had come for the latest fad, something new, something different, something seemingly innovative.
Historical continuity is a central theme of Shirat Ha’azinu, as it says: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past… ” (32:7). New is not necessarily better. In contrast to most everything else in existence, Torah does not lose its value with time; it is only our appreciation of Torah that often diminishes with time.
Shirat Ha’azinu implores us to be chacham – intelligent enough to retain our perspective and sense of priorities and recognize the magnificent gift we have been given, to be the Am HaNivchar and to study and practice Hashem’s Torah.
If we are able to accomplish this, then, with Hashem’s help, we will avoid religious and spiritual fatigue, and not fall victim to the temptation to search for new (and ultimately unfulfilling and transitory) substitutes for mitzvot.
Rosh Hashana is a time of rebirth/renewal/hischadshus. A huge portion of the Rosh Hashana service is dedicated to proclaiming Hashem as Supreme King of the Universe – past, present and future.
May we be privileged in the coming year to feel the excitement of learning His Torah, and serving Hashem with gratitude, with intelligence and with passion.
[based in part on a dvar torah written by R’ David Silverberg on the VBM]
Your servants took a count of the men of war that were with us, and not a man has been lost.
Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson, in his Divrei Shaul, explains this Midrash by suggesting a symbolic meaning behind the tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh. Chazal comment that one must wear the tefillin shel yad on “yad keiha” = the weaker arm. The Divrei Shaul suggests that the tefillin shel yad thus symbolizes the “weakness” of the human hand — the notion that our efforts are only as successful as Hashem sees fit. The tefillin shel rosh, by contrast, are a symbol of grandeur and nobility. Some sources even speak of tefillin shel rosh as a crown on our heads.
[I believe this fits well with the parshiot in our teffilin, which are so closely connected with the concept of being Hashem’s firstborn, and what that meant during Makat Bechorot and Yetziat Mitzrayim. The only active role we played in Makat Bechorot was putting blood on the doorpost. We demonstrated that we were willing to make the efforts demanded of us, but of course only Hashem would decide which firstborns to kill and which to leave unharmed. We bind ourselves to Hashem, and He binds Himself back to us. As the Gemara in Brachos tells us, that in Hashem’s teffilin the parshiot read:
מי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ
The generals reported to Moshe that the battle against Midyan was a success because the soldiers understood the message of yad keiha – the weak arm that characterizes human effort in the absence of divine support. As a result, they achieved victory, rooted out the cause of their sins, and once again donned the crown of Hashem.
[based on a dvar torah written by R’ David Silverberg]
Parshat B’haalotcha contains several unfortunate incidents that occurred after Bnei Yisrael left Har Sinai:
In Perek 11 the Torah recounts the incident of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, where Bnei Yisrael complained about the mahn and demanded meat, and were subsequently punished.
Next, in Perek 12, Miriam and Aharon speak improperly about their brother, Moshe, and they are punished with tzara’at.
Rashi explains that these two stories are juxtaposed because one led to the other; Miriam only learned of her brother’s divorce as a result of the events of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava. (In response to the nation’s demand for meat, Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint 70 elders to assist him. During the formal designation of these leaders outside the camp, two other men – Eldad and Meidad – began prophesying within the camp. Tzipora, Moshe’s wife, observed the prophecy and expressed her concern that Eldad and Meidad may divorce their wives as Moshe had divorced her. Miriam overheard Tzipora’s comments, and it was then that she spoke with Aharon about Moshe’s divorce.)
Rabbenu Bechayei, however, suggests a connection between the two incidents, not necessarily because one led to the other, but rather due to their resemblance. Both incidents involved “hotza’at diba” — negative speech about something or someone special. In the episode of Kivrot Ha-Ta’ava, Bnei Yisrael spoke disdainfully of the mahn, claiming that they were better off with their diet in Egypt. Rather than appreciating the extraordinary miracle of the mahn, which fell each morning from the heavens and sustained every member of the nation, the people complained about it. Similarly, Miriam, rather than speaking admiringly and reverently about her brother, found something negative to express. Just as Bnei Yisrael complained about the miraculous food Hahem provided them, Miriam likewise complained about her brother, the greatest prophet that ever lived.
Rabbenu Bechayei adds that the next narrative – the sin of the spies, in Parshat Shlach – continues (or perhaps culminates) this theme of hotza’at diba. (The Torah specifically refers to the spies’ reports as “dibat ha’aretz” in 13:32 and 14:37) The spies chose to focus their attention specifically on the challenges they viewed with settling Eretz Yisrael, rather than on the Land’s remarkable qualities and innate kedusha. The story of the Mergalim thus continues the topic of looking negatively upon the great gifts given to us by Hashem.
In all three episodes, a person or a group of people sinned by finding fault in a great person (Moshe), place (Land of Israel) or thing (the mahn).
These three complaints perhaps reflect three broader areas where this mistake of hotza’at diba is often made.
1. Kivrot Ha-ta’ava — Material discontent and dissatisfaction with financial conditions: The mahn represents a gift from Hashem, which is how were are supposed to view everything we have, and whatever that lot may be, we are supposed to be satisfied and grateful.
2. Miriam and Aharon’s lashon hara — Inclination to comment on the behavior or shortcoming of others: It’s always easier to evaluate someone else instead of ourselves. If we look hard enough, we can find fault in anyone – even Moshe Rabbenu. Our goal should not be to point out the negatives in other people, rather to focus our attention instead on admirable qualities.
3. Meraglim — Focusing on the challenges and complexities of Jewish destiny, rather than its opportunities: The spies had the privilege of being the first ones to go into Eretz Yisrael, and instead of relishing the opportunity of planning how to settle the Land, they focused on the difficult challenges that this privilege entailed. The catastrophe of Cheit Ha-Meragelim reminds us to keep our attention focused on the great opportunity we are given as Hashem’s chosen nation, and to approach the challenges that go along with this lofty stature with enthusiasm and confidence, rather than excuses and complaints.
All three instances demonstrate the dangers of negativism. A negative, fault-finding outlook prevents us from feeling satisfied with our material blessings (Kivrot Ha-Ta’ava), damages our relationships with family and friends (Miriam and Aharon), and discourages us from actively pursuing the spiritual goals and national duties that are demanded of Hashem’s special nation (Chet Ha-Meragelim).
If, instead, we are able focus on the positive qualities about everything and everyone around us, then we can more readily find happiness, fulfillment and pride in our daily lives and our service of Hashem.
[Based on a dvar torah written by R’ David Silverberg on the VBM]
Parshat Acharei-Mot introduces the obligation of kisui ha-dam – covering the blood that spills out of birds or non-domesticated animals, when slaughtering them for consumption:
“And if any Israelite…who hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth” (17:13).
A few approaches and explanations offered, with regard to the practice of kisui ha-dam:
1. The Rambam, in his Moreh Nevuchim (3:46), consistent with his general approach to mitzvot as intended to negate the pagan practices and beliefs of the ancients, explains the obligation of kisui ha-dam on the basis of the blood rituals reportedly practiced by the ancient pagans. The pagans considered blood to be food of the spirits, and therefore some sects would collect the blood of a slaughtered animal in a receptacle and eat the animal’s meat while sitting around the blood. By doing this, the pagans believed they were forging some sort of camaraderie with the “spirits,” because both the idolaters and the spirits would be feasting at the same time, on the animal and the animal’s blood, respectively.
The prevalence of this practice, according to the Rambam, gave rise to the Torah prohibition against eating blood, as well as to the prominent role of blood-sprinkling in the sacrificial process, which precluded the possibility of ritual gatherings around animal blood. The blood of birds and non-domesticated beasts, which, by and large, were not offered as sacrifices, had to be covered, so as to prevent ceremonial “spirit assemblies” near the site of spilt blood.
2. The Sefer Ha-chinukh (187) explains this obligation as aimed at preserving the refined character of the people. Should one grow accustomed to slaughtering animals and immediately proceed to partake of its meat as the blood remained exposed in a pool on the ground, he may develop a violent, heartless tendencies. Therefore, the Torah required covering the blood as a measure of self-respect and dignity.
In trying to connect this to the upcoming Pesach holiday and a nice idea for the Seder, I was reminded of an idea I heard from Rav Moshe Taragin –
The Korban Pesach was a blend of being a Korban for Hashem, as well as food for us to consume on the night of Yetziat Mitzrayim.
What is the significance of the blood of the lamb that was to be applied to the doorpost? The simple reading is that it was a sign for Hashem to identify the Jewish homes.
The Gemara in Psachim mentions another purpose, and says blood on the doorpost was zrikas hadam. According to the general laws of karbanot, since a lamb is a domesticated animal, its blood is not covered, rather it is elevated by being sprinkled on the Mizbeach. The Korban Pesach was the first korban of an entire nation, but we didn’t have a Mizbeach! How could there be a sacrifice with no Mizbeach?? He answers that the first Mizbeach was the doorposts — the home. So the home is a specifically a place for serving Hashem. We don’t only serve Hashem in a synagogue or Beis Medrash, rather we also serve Him with family in the home. Clearly, the home and the family unit (immediate and communal) are key elements of Leil HaSeder.
At the moment of the Jewish people becoming the Jewish nation, we highlight the importance of our difference from the animal kingdom – and the ideal of being controlled by our neshamot, rather than our physical, animalistic composition – and we elevate our homes into a Mikdash Me’at and a place ofavodas Hashem. In trying to mimic that first Seder night, we hopefully turn our own homes on Pesach (as a model for the rest of the year) into a place for family gathering, divrei torah, avodas Hashem andsimchas yomtov.
The affliction of Tzara’at manifests itself in a number of different ways, one of which is referred to by the Torah as “Tzara’at noshenet,” or “old tzara’at.” (Vayikra 13:11). The skin becomes infected in the same manner as it does with standard Tzara’at, but in this case, a scab has begun forming within the infected area. The Torah declares such an infection as Tzara’at that had infected the skin earlier, and has since begun to slightly heal, thus accounting for the scab.
Based on a dvar torah written by R’ David Silverberg, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l teaches an important lesson from this manifestation of Tzara’at. Upon seeing the growth of new, restorative skin, the individual is led to believe that the infection does not constitute true Tzara’at. After all, the affected area has already begun healing. The Torah, however, tells us otherwise. For any amount of time as the infection has not completely healed, it cannot be dismissed; the individual is a metzora. Tzara’at noshenet symbolizes a situation in which we find “bright spots” or mitigating factors within our faults. We sometimes take a look at our actions and parts of our personalities and find negative qualities, but we are tempted to excuse these deficiencies as soon as we can identify some alleviating factor, justification, or even a positive byproduct of these shortcomings. The Torah teaches us that an infection remains an infection even when accompanied by some healthy skin. Faults are still faults, even if we can find some good associated therewith. The task, therefore, is to spend time working on ourselves, mining the root causes of any negative qualities that persist, and act in a way that is always purely intentioned and properly carried out.
Another interesting lesson learned from the laws of Tzara’at is found in Gemara Shabbos. Perek 13:45 in Tazria says:
וְהַצָּרוּעַ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ הַנֶּגַע בְּגָדָיו יִהְיוּ פְרֻמִים וְרֹאשׁוֹ יִהְיֶה פָרוּעַ וְעַל-שָׂפָם יַעְטֶה וְטָמֵא טָמֵא יִקְרָא
Gemara Shabbos 67a says:
וטמא טמא יקרא – צריך להודיע צערו לרבים ורבים יבקשו עליו רחמים
From the usage of “yikra”, the Gemara learns that when a person is afflicted with Tzara’at, the nation is to be made aware, and the people must subsequently pray for the afflicted individual.
Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus references a concept in Gemara Brachos 12b (learned out from a passuk in Shmuel I):
כל שאפשר לו לבקש רחמים על חבירו ואינו מבקש – נקרא חוטא
Anyone who is able to ask for mercy for his friend, and does not ask, is called a ‘sinner’.
Being labeled a choteh/sinner is a rather serious thing. The importance of praying for a friend in need is underscored by the harsh outcome of not doing so. How interesting that specifically from the sin of lashon hara, which has the terrible potential to tear relationships and communities apart, chas v’shalom, we learn the requirement to pray for another; specifically an individual who committed the damaging act. We might think this is the last person who is deserving of collective prayer and concern, but in fact, it is just the opposite.
Given the enormity of the need to pray for the metzora, perhaps there is more than just one purpose for the collective prayer for this individual. The obvious reason to pray for the metzora so that he/she will be cured. Additionally, we pray not only for the “infection” of the skin to be physically cured, but also that the root cause of the lashon hara – jealousy, anger, insecurity, voyeurism, boredom, etc. – be cured as well. The cause of (and pervasiveness of) lashon hara, is obviously not isolated to this individual; everyone in the community is susceptible to fall victim to such pitfalls, and so the more we care about one another, the less likely we all are to speak ill of each other.
Furthermore, while the metzora must be taken outside the camp due to his/her transgression, ultimately our goal is not to exile a person indefinitely. There is a concept that every person in Klal Yisrael serves a special purpose, which only that individual capable of fulfilling. Despite the terrible sin of lashon hara that was committed, we pray for the person to be cured and rejoin the community, so that the community may once again be complete and benefit from all the positive qualities and value this person has to offer.
One final thought, going back to the beginning of the parsha which speaks about circumcising a baby boy on the eighth day from birth (Vayikra 12:3). I was tasked this week with trying to explain the merits of having a ritual circumcision to a Jewish co-worker of mine who is expecting his first child in a few months. Hopefully I was successful, but it reminded me of a story once read about Rav Chaim Berlin. Rav Chaim would often read Shir HaShirim on Chol HaMoed Pesach, and when he came to the 15th passuk in the first chapter, year after year, he would burst into tears. The verse reads:
He was once asked why that passuk caused such an intense response. In short, he said that when he was the rav in Moscow he was approached by a Jew to perform a circumcision for his son. This Jew had made a living selling Christian items, had zero affiliation with other Jews in Moscow, and could be killed if it was ever discovered that he was Jewish. Rav Chaim went to the home, which was filled with Christian relics and had no semblance of anything Jewish. A few days later, Rav Chaim asked that the father come see him to tell him how the child was doing. Rav Chaim asked the father why he was moser nefesh to perform a Bris Milah. The father broke down and said although he was no longer a practicing Jew, and that it seemed unlikely that his newborn son would ever be exposed to much Judaism, he at least had a chance to be connected to Judaism, because he grew up in a Jewish home. The father didn’t want to deprive his son of the opportunity to be a proper member of the community should the son decide to do so someday in the future.
Rav Chaim said that from this he understood the seemingly redundant wording in Shir HaShirim and how that connects to doves. Chazal explain the repetition of, “You are fair,” by saying that the first one refers to before we sin, and the second one refers to after we sin. What is the fairness/beauty after the sin? The answer is found in the next words, “Your eyes are as doves.” A dove, unlike other birds, will never fly so far away from her nest that she can’t navigate her way back. A Jew has this quality, that even when he sins and “flies” far from the Source (no matter how big/small the sin or how near/far he wanders), hopefully he is never too far to find his his way home, and hopefully when he does find his way back, (perhaps similar to the metzora who we are to pray for and whose return to the community we eagerly await) he is greeted with open arms.
The Shalosh Regalim – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – have at least two main significant aspects.
These two components – the historical and the agricultural – do not necessarily constitute two independent lessons; the two are very much related, as each sheds light upon the other.
Specifically, the seasonal progression from Pesach to Shavuot symbolizes the historical progression from the Yetziat Mitzrayim to Matan Torah. Pesach is the holiday of springtime; the harsh winter conditions begin to subside, flowers begin to blossom, the ground once again becomes suitable for vegetation. These external conditions, however, only begin the process whose significance ultimately comes to fruition – literally – with the arrival of Shavuot – the first harvest. The springtime, while beautiful, is only the very beginning of the results it will ultimately produce several months later.
Similarly, some suggest, that Pesach signifies the beauty and splendor of Am Yisrael. In essence, it commemorates the birth of Jewish nationalism and pride, our singularity and ascent as “b’ni bechori Yisrael”. However, this pride lacks an anchoring to something significant when considered in the absence of Shavuot – the giving of the Torah. Just as Spring marks the beginning of a development that only culminates with the first harvest, so does Pesach trigger a progression that culminates with Hashem’s revelation on Har Sinai seven weeks later. Just as flowers that don’t bear fruit are merely attractive to the eye, but lack substantive significance, so does our sense of nationalism lose much of its meaning without our acceptance of the Torah. We didn’t leave Egypt to wander indefinitely; we left so that we could accept the Torah and become Avdei Hashem.
There is tremendous unrealized potential in identifying solely with the status and freedom afforded to us through the story of the Exodus, without committing ourselves to the obligations and demands of Matan Torah. If we only gaze upon the beautiful flowers of Springtime – the elevated stature of Am Yisrael as represented by Pesach, but fail to reap the harvest of Summertime – to submit ourselves to the demands of a Torah lifestyle, as we were commanded on Shavuot (and to the detailed laws contained in Mishpatim), then we fall tragically short of Hashem’s expectations for His Chosen Nation. One of the main themes of Pesach is Hashem establishing Himself to the world as Creator and Sustainer. We channel Hashem’s message, through our learning and observance of the mitzvot, and by spreading the infinite Torah lessons and values. The splendor of the spring must go hand-in-hand with the substantive results of the summer.