Torah Readings for Thursday, April 19, 2018 (4th of Iyar)
Yom Ha’Atzmaut - Israel Independence Day
Yom Ha’Atzmaut As a Religious Event
The anniversary of the proclamation of Israel’s Independence on the 5th of Iyar, 5708, was declared a religious holiday by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. A special order of service was created which is now part of many prayer books in Israel and in communities outside of the state of Israel. For example the Conservative Movement in the United States has designated the following readings from the Torah and the Prophets. In addition, Hallel, the special collection of Psalms recited on such events as the Three Major Festivals and Rosh Chodesh, is chanted.
7:12-8:18 Devarim (Deuteronomy)
The Special Torah reading for Yom Ha’Atzmaut is the opening section from the weekly reading of Eikev. In these opening verses of the reading, Moshe is telling the children of Israel of all the blessings they will enjoy when they enter the Promised Land if they remember to observe the laws God has given them. Moshe recounts the travails that the Israelites have faced but reminds them that God has always been with them. Their entrance into the land is proof of His might and a reminder of the covenant between Him and the Jewish people. The parallels between the scene in the Wilderness and the events of the fifth of Iyar are too striking to require much commentary. The children of Israel had suffered two thousand years of exile. Now, they are returning to their homeland, a homeland that is more than a political entity. It is the spiritual homeland of the Whole House of Israel. The rebirth of the Jewish state is a challenge for the Jewish people to renew its connection with the letter and the spirit of the Law which has sustained us
The Man: The reading is the product of the historic or First Isaiah who lived during the eighth century B.C.E. He began preaching around 740 B.C.E. His public career lasted for some forty to sixty years spanning the reign of four Kings of Judah beginning with Uzziah and ending with Hezekiah. He was married to a woman he refers to as “the prophetess” and he had two sons. Apparently he was related to the royal family which meant he could address his teachings directly to those in power. According to tradition, Manasseh whose reign was both long and wicked, murdered Isaiah. Isaiah lived in a time of great political turmoil. Assyria was the leading power of the day. He witnessed the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and the exile of the ten tribes. He encouraged the Judeans not to make a military alliance with the Egyptians who were the enemies of the Assyrians. Rather, he urged the Judeans to trust in the Lord for their deliverance. Isaiah lived in a time of affluence and economic inequality. He chastised the people for failing to care for the disadvantaged. God would punish them for this as well as their other moral shortcomings.
The Message: The reading opens with a description of “the Assyrian army’s destruction at the very moment when it believed itself to be knocking at the gates of victory.” (10:32-34). The reading continues with a description of the Messianic Age when the exiles will be gathered back to the Promised Land (All of Chapter 11). The reading ends with “two hymns” that begin “I will give thanks unto Thee O Lord” (12:1) and conclude with “Cry aloud and shout, thou inhabitants of Zion; For great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of Thee” (12:6).
Theme Link: The connection is to the events of the day - the historic rebirth of the state of Israel. Just like the Assyrians, the Arabs were clamoring at the gates thinking that victory was in their grasp. And like the Assyrians, the mightier military force lost out to the outnumbered defenders of the Jewish state. The creation of the state of Israel is seen by many as the first part of the fulfillment of the Messianic Vision. It certainly has marked the ingathering of the exiles. A feeling of thankfulness must permeate the accomplishment of this great act.
Torah Readings for Saturday, April 21, 2018
Tazria ( “To bring forth seed’)
12:21 - 13:59 Vayikra (Leviticus)
Tazria is the fourth sedrah in Vayikra (Leviticus). The term “Tazria” is translated variously as “to bring forth seed” or “childbirth” or “be delivered.” The portion begins with the statement, “When a woman at childbirth ‘Tazria’ bears a male.…” The name of the sedrah usually comes from the first or first important word in the portion. It would be a fair question to ask why this sedrah is not call “Ishah” or Woman since the word “Ishah” comes before “Tazria.” The word “Ishah” would certainly seem to be of prime importance when talking about childbirth. Also, the first chapter of the sedrah deals with laws of purification relating to the “Ishah” or woman who has given birth to a son or daughter. The balance of the sedrah deals with “tzara’at,” a word that is traditionally translated as leprosy. Based on the description of the affliction described in the Torah, “tzara’at” is not what we call leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. Depending upon the commentator, the disease in the Torah is “a scaly affection on the skin” and may in fact be more a general term for several skin ailments. The Torah is not a medical book and the Kohanim were not medicine men.
Interestingly enough, “tzara’at” can be found in woolen cloth and linen fabric. This would further underscore that the disease described in the Torah is not the same as what we call leprosy. This sedrah is dealing with a concept of “tumah” or “ritual impurity.” In each instance, it describes the impurity, the role of the priest and the method for responding to the impurity. According to some, ritual impurity is not to be equated with sin. Rather it is a condition that people find themselves in; a condition that has a physical manifestation; a condition that can be dealt with and usually remedied. There are also those who say the first part of the sedrah concerning the new mother is a manifestation of ancient man’s sense of awe when confronted by childbirth. A lack of understanding of an event often would lead ancient man to create a series of taboos and rituals. If this is so, then the authors of the Torah have attempted to provide a Jewish context for pre-existing behavior.
166. The specification that a woman becomes ritually unclean after giving birth (12:2, 5).
167. The prohibition of a person who is ritually unclean from eating the meat of a sacrifice offered at the sanctuary (12:4).
168. The specification of the sacrifice to be brought by a woman who has given birth (12:6, 7).
169. The specification of ritual uncleanness of a metzora, a person with a specific sort of skin affliction (13:2-3).
170. The prohibition against shaving the area of a scaly skin affliction (13:33).
171. The commandment that one afflicted with the disease of tzara’at should rend his clothes and let his hair grow loose, like a mourner (13:45).
172. The procedure to be followed when there is an affliction of tzara’at on clothing (13:47-54).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
This is neither the first time nor the last time we will meet this skin condition. Remember how Moshe’s hand turned white and then returned to normal in Shemot. Also, Miriam will suffer a skin affliction when she gossips about her brother. Judaism does not connect ill health to divine punishment. On the other hand, Judaism, like modern psychology does see a connection between the spirit and the body. Etz Hayim had one of the best notes about this citing the sages who saw the commonality between leprosy and malicious gossip. They are both highly contagious. The gossip, like the leper, can infect another with his evil tongue. Tzara’at can be visited on those with haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely and one who incites brothers to quarrel. While we may no longer perform the rituals, reading the sedrah should remind us of the evil of the wagging tongue.
For those of you who are interested in reading more about why this sedrah is called Tazria and not Ishah, I suggest you read the section in Torah Studies by Rabbi Schneerson by that name. The discussion is interesting, but beyond my ability to summarize.
Metzora (Leper)14:1 - 15:33 Vayikra (Leviticus)
Metzora is the fifth sedrah in Vayikra (Leviticus). It takes its name from the second verse in chapter 14, “This shall be the law of the leper (‘Metzora’) on the day of his purification.” In chapter 14, the first part of the sedrah describes the steps in the ritual purification of the Metzora. They include removal from the camp, shaving and ritual offerings. The balance of chapter fourteen address “tzara’at” which is the most baffling form of affliction mentioned in this or the previous sedrah. It is some kind of blight or mold or mildew that attacks houses. It is only found in Canaan and God states that this affliction comes from him. Coping with the affliction of the house follows the same pattern as coping with afflictions of the body. The matter is reported to the Kohein, who periodically will check the house. If the affliction does not disappear, the building is torn down. If the affliction abates, then the Kohein conducts a ritual purification. The rest of the sedrah, all of Chapter 15, deals with various forms of discharges and the rules of purification related to them. Rules related to discharges from men are covered in verses 1 through 18. Rules related to women are found in verses 9-32. The Shulchon Oruch, the Code of Jewish Law, deals with these matters in much greater detail. The two portions are easy to combine because the subject matter is inter-related. They both deal with personal impurity and the rituals for dealing with the defilement. These rituals ceased to be operative with the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the Oral Law took the concepts described here and made them part of Halachah. Even those who reject the rabbinic law based on these readings look to them for deeper spiritual meanings.
173. The procedure for the ritual rehabilitation of one who has recovered from tzara’at(14:2-4).
174 - 175. The requirement that a metzora should shave all his facial and bodily hair and immerse himself in a ritual bath on the seventh day after the performance of the procedure described in the preceding commandment (14:9).
176. The specification of the offering brought by a metzora after he is healed (14:10-11).
177. The procedure for how a priest is to treat a house contaminated with tzara’at (14:35-42).
178. The ritual uncleanness of a man who has chronic discharges from his penis (15:2).
179. The offering to be brought by a man after being healed of chronic discharges (15:13-15).
180. The specification of ritual uncleanness for one who has seminal emission (15:15, 18).
181. The specification that a menstruating woman is ritually unclean (15:19).
182. The stipulation that a woman who has an irregular discharge of blood is ritually unclean (15:25).
183. The delineation of the offering brought by a woman where irregular discharge ends (15:28-30).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Originally this sedrah was called “Zot Tihyeh” or “This shall be” which are the first words in the second verse of the sedrah. For those of you who are interested in how the name came to be changed to the less flattering name of Metzora, I recommend the chapter in Torah Studies that has the same name.
7:3-20 Second Kings
The Man: The prophetic portion covers two more miracles involving Elisha, the son of Shaphat from the tribe of Gad. The miracles are noted at the end of this guide. The haftarah comes from the Books of Kings, specifically Second Kings. Sepher Melachim (Book of Kings) covers a period of roughly four hundred years. It begins with the last days of King David and continues through the reign of King Solomon, the establishment of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and the destruction of both these monarchies. From another point of view, First Kings opens with the last days of King David and ends with the events surrounding the death of King Ahab. Second Kings opens with events surrounding the life of King Ahab’s son, Achaziah. It ends in Babylonia with Jehoiachin, the last King of Judah, being released from prison. This was seen as a harbinger of the ultimate redemption and return from exile. For those of you who are into dates, the narrative begins in approximately 965 B.C.E. and ends in 586 B.C.E. The prophet Elisha is the main character in this week’s reading. Elisha preached in the Northern Kingdom, Israel, for approximately sixty years. Before ascending to heaven, Elijah chose Elisha as his successor. Unlike his predecessor, Elisha appears to have worked more as an insider, advising the monarchs instead of being an external irritant. This does not mean that Elisha was pliant or afraid to point out the shortcomings of his society. Elisha is noted for the miracles he performed - seventeen in all according to the sages. These miracle stories must have been quite popular since most, if not all of them are included in various prophetic portions in the course of the year. Two of these miracles are featured in this week’s prophetic portion.
The Message: The haftarah is actually the climactic part of an event that began with II Kings 6:8. The King of Aram (probably Ben-hadad who reigned in Damascus) attacked the Kingdom of Israel. He laid siege to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. According to the text, the siege was so horrific that the people resorted to cannibalism. The King of Israel lost heart and threatened the life of Elisha. But Elisha told him not be afraid and predicted that the siege would be lifted. This is where the narrative of the haftarah begins. According to the text, four Israelite lepers were sitting outside of the city. As outcasts, they were caught between the besieged Israelites and the besieging Arameans. Figuring they had nothing to lose, they snuck into the Aramean camp looking for food and shelter. Much to their surprise, they found that the camp was empty. Thanks to a miracle from God, the Arameans had retreated in the night. At first, the lepers began looting the camp. But then they had a change of heart and decided to go back and tell the Israelites what had happened.
Theme-Link: The sedrah tells about the law of the leper. The prophetic portion tells about the behavior of four lepers. The haftarah puts a slightly different spin on this skin condition. According to some, leprosy was a punishment for “evil speech.” They cite the story of Miriam as an example of this. In this haftarah, lepers behave in a morally superior manner. Even though they are outcasts, they decide that it is wrong to keep the Aramean booty for themselves. Instead, they return to the city to let the people know that they have been spared. Ironically, it is the lepers who reveal God’s miracle.
Miracles: “The confusion caused by God in the Aramean camp” (II Kings 7:6).
“The lowering of prices in the markets of Samaria and the death of the captain who had jeered at Elisha” (II Kings 7:16).
Personal Note: My grandson chanted this haftarah based on events in the life of the Prophet Elisha as part of his Bar Mitzvah. There are those who believe that there is a special connection between the Bar Mitzvah Boy and the Prophet who provides his reading. While Elisha is remembered for many things, the greatest thing he did came just after Elijah, his mentor and teacher, was taken up in the fiery chariot. “He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of the Jordan.” In other words, Elisha followed in the footsteps of Elijah. He took hold of the tradition, kept it alive and trained the next generation to follow in the footsteps of a journey begun by Abraham. Jacob, like Elijah, has picked up the mantle. With his Bar Mitzvah he has followed in the footsteps of all those who came before them and committed himself to travel down the road of Torah and Mitzvah. A grandfather could ask for no greater gift. And yet Jacob, by being a mensch in the truest sense of that word has given us so much more. As he stood before the congregation, he knew that no matter what he does or where he goes, we will always love him.
Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) Saturday, April 21, 2018
Pirke Avot - (Sayings of the Fathers) is a collection of sayings, teachings, and ethical maxims. A popular and eminently quotable work, it is one of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah. The Mishnah, consisting of centuries of oral teachings passed down from one generation to the next, was finally codified by Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi in 200 C.E. Pirke Avot is unique among the tractates of the Mishnah in that it doesn't contain any halachah (law), only aggadah (stories or legends). Its popularity is reflected in the fact that it is included in most prayer books (including, in part, in Gates of Prayer).
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut one of the great teachers of the Reform Movement suggests that Pirke Avot "teaches us the essentials of what life might be at its best." It deals with some of life's most basic and important questions: What is our purpose and destiny? What is sin, and how do we conquer it? What is wisdom? What is my relationship to God? Pirke Avot is divided into chapters, and each chapter is further divided into individual statements, each called a Mishnah. It is customary to study a chapter of Pirke Avot starting with the first Shabbat after the end of Pesach (Passover). Since Pirke Avot consists of six chapters, the work may be completed by the start of Shavuot. However, other groups of Jews follow a cycle where they study and re-study each of the chapters until the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. Regardless of the format you choose, each week the Torah page will include one verse from the chapter of the week with a few comments from a variety of sources.)
Excerpts from Chapter 2
(2:3) “Be cautious of rulers, for they do not befriend a person unless it is for the benefit of themselves; they appear like friends at a time when it benefits them, but they don’t stand by a person in his time of need.” This statement may be attributed to Rabban Gamiliel. There are those who say this statement applied only to the despotic government of Rome, which controlled the fate of the Jews at this time. Other students of history would suggest that this is good advice regardless of who is in power. While Jews have a tradition of supporting civil government, the Chosen People know how easily it can be chosen to suffer by governments of many different forms. Pirke Avot is worth reading and re-reading because it is pithy, timely and true.
(2:9) “Rabban Yochanan, the son of Zakkai, received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say, If thou hast learnt much Torah, ascribe not any merit to thyself, for thereunto was thou created.” This sage lived at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 A.D.). According to legend, his disciples smuggled him out of Jerusalem; that event led to a fortuitous encounter with the Roman general whom Ben Zakkai predicted would become Emperor. As a reward for his prophetic vision, Ben Zakkai was allowed to establish an academy at Yavneh. Yavneh became the gathering place for Jewish scholars and sages after the fall of Jerusalem. Thanks to Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the dimming light of Judaism was kindled anew as our people used Torah (in the broadest meaning of that term) to turn a new chapter in our history. Obviously Ben Zakkai felt that it was praiseworthy to study Torah. The admonition is against bragging about studying, since study of Torah is what a Jew is supposed to be doing in the first place.
(2:15) Rabbi Tarfon says: The Day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great and the Master is insistent.
(2:16) He used to say: You are not expected to complete the work and yet you are not free to evade it. If you have studied a great deal of Torah, you will be given great reward and your Employer can be trusted to pay you with the reward for your work, but know that the reward of the righteous will be paid in the World to Come.
“The work” refers to the study of Torah and “the Employer” is God.
Rabbi Tarfon is an interesting personage. He was actually born into the Priestly family and served in the Temple during the days just prior to the destruction by the Romans. According to one legend he had three hundred wives. He married them in a time of great famine and hunger. By marrying these women he made it possible for them to partake of those parts of the sacrifice that were reserved for the families of the Priests. The legend continues that he was so respectful of women that when his aged mother would arise from her bed he would let her use his back as footstool to ease her way to the floor. According to some he favored the strict teaching of Shammi (consider the tone of the quote), but he was in accord with Rabbi Akiva in working against the death penalty. After the Roman victory, he went to Yavneh and set up an academy at the town of Lydda. He wrote at a time when the people were demoralized by the seeming victory of the wicked. So he provided them a prod for studying - just because you cannot learn it all is no reason not to begin or continue. And he reminded the Jews that in the Jewish concept of Justice there was a final judgment that took place in the World to Come. Hence, the victory of the villain was only superficial and not lasting. For those who grapple with the issue of God and the Holocaust this is an answer supplied by a man who lived through what, for his generation, was an equally devastating event.
(2:18) “Rabbi Shimon says: ‘Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer. When you pray do not make your prayer a set routine but rather (make it a request) for compassion and supplication before the Omnipresent. As it is said: For gracious and compassionate is He, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and relenting of punishment; and do not consider yourself a wicked person.’”
Prayer is a serious business. It is a conversation between man and his Maker. This is one of a series of admonitions in Jewish writing about thinking about what you are saying when you are praying. There are those who believe that God is as “meticulous” in his response as we are in the words we speak to Him. The command to not consider yourself a wicked person is directly tied to the quality of ones efforts at praying. If you consider yourself unworthy of God’s compassion and forgiveness, you will pray in that manner. Furthermore, if you think of yourself as evil you will lose heart and not fight against the Evil Inclination. Yes, this does begin to sound something like the modern concept of self-esteem. But Jewish self-esteem does not come just come from convincing yourself you are a good person. It comes from studying Torah, serving God and performing acts of loving-kindness.
Copyright; April 2018; Mitchell A. Levin