Sunday, April 30, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, May 6, 2017 Acharay Mot After the death Kedoshim Holy

Torah Readings for Saturday, May 6, 2017

Acharay Mot (After the death)
16:1-18:30 Vayikra (Leviticus)

The sedrah takes its name from a reference to the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu that we read about in chapter 10 of Vayikra (Leviticus).  “The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death (“Acharay Mot”) of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”  This explication will follow the scheme of Etz Hayim in which each of the three chapters that make up Acharay Mot is seen as dealing with a separate issue.

Chapter 16 - Yom Kippur
The sedrah describes the elaborate rituals surrounding Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The rituals begin with the Kohein making atonement for his own sins and for those of his household.  This is followed by the ceremony of the goats where one goat is selected for God and the other for Azazel or Scapegoat.  The chapter ends with what the editors of the Stone Chumash call the “Eternal Commandment of Yom Kippur.”

Chapter 17 - Holiness Code
This marks the start of what some call the Holiness Code.  It will run through chapter 26 of Vayikra, which is the last chapter of the third book of the Torah.  As can be seen from the wording of 17:2, the rules that follow apply to the whole House of Israel, not just to Aaron and the Priestly Class.  This chapter contains a series of commandments (see Themes below) concerning proper ritual behavior outside of the Tabernacle.  Once again, we see strong emphasis on the prohibition against consuming blood.

Chapter 18 - Definition and Protection of the Family
This chapter contains a rather lengthy list of prohibited sexual relations (see Themes below).  Why does God prohibit these incestuous relationships?  Why does God prohibit sodomy and bestiality?  Why does He order us to avoid the practices related to Molech?  This is part of God’s plan to make us separate from other nations.  He tells us in 18:3 that we are not to be like the Egyptians among whom we have lived.  Nor are we to be like the inhabitants of Canaan, the land to which we are going.  As He says in 18:4, we are His people, which mean we follow His laws.  We may not like the laws.  We may not understand the laws.  But at least this time we know the reason for the laws.

184.         The commandment that priests should enter the inner sanctuary only when it is necessary for them to do so (16:2-3).
185.         The specification of the Temple rituals to be performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur (16:3ff.).
186.         The prohibition against offering a sacrifice outside the sanctuary (17:3-4).
187.         The commandment to cover the blood of a permissible wild animal or fowl after it has been slaughtered (17:13).
188.         The general prohibition against incest (18:6).
189.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with one’s father (18:7).
190.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with one’s mother (18:7).
191.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with your father’s wife, even if she is not your mother (18:8).
192.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with one’s full or half-sister.
193.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with granddaughters born of one’s son (18:10).
194.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with granddaughters born of one’s daughter (18:10).
195.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a daughter (18:6).
196.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a half-sister (18:11).
197.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a paternal aunt (18:12-13).
198.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a maternal aunt (18:12-13).
199.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with an uncle (18:14).
200.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with an aunt through marriage.
201.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a daughter-in-law (18:15).
202.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with sister-in-law (18:16).
203.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a woman and her daughter (18:17).
204.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a woman and her paternal granddaughter (18:17).
205.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a woman and her maternal granddaughter (18:17).
206.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with two sisters while both are alive and if the man is married to one of them (18:18).
207.         The prohibition against having sexual relations with a woman during her menstrual period (18:19).
208.         The prohibition against sacrificing one’s child to the idol known as Moloch (18:21).
209.         Prohibition of male homosexuality (18:22).
210.         Prohibition of male bestiality (18:23).
211.         Prohibition of female bestiality (18:23).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Yom Kippur
Obviously, our concept of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has grown and developed since the words of Vayikra 16:1-34 were written.  We will discuss the holiday in greater detail again next fall when we celebrate it.  However, the core of Yom Kippur is found in this sedrah.  Yom Kippur is to be observed for all times on the tenth day of the seventh month.  It is to be a day of complete rest and complete self-denial.  It is an annual Day of Atonement for sins that have been committed.  Aaron’s need to offer sacrifices of atonement for himself and his household probably provide the origin of the confessional apology offered by the Rabbi and Cantor before they begin the Kol Nidre Service on Yom Kippur.

Acharay Mot
Why begin the sedrah with a reminder of the death of Aaron’s two sons?  There can be several reasons.  One is that God wants to impress upon Aaron the importance of following the rituals exactly as outlined.  Failure to do so could lead Aaron to the same fate as his sons.  Another may be that God wanted to remind Aaron to make sure that he had a way back from the spiritual ecstasy that he would experience during the Yom Kippur rituals.  According to some commentators, the sons perished because they sought to reach God at a level of spiritual ecstasy without any thought of maintaining contact with the world of man - the world in which they had responsibilities as Kohanim.  While the Jew may reach toward God, he is not to forget the work that he is to do in the world, which is to help make it a Godly or holy place.

Acharay Mot II
According to Rabbi Jonathan Blass, Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, were slain because they represented an old style of Israelite religious practice and they were incapable of adjusting to the new regime.  Prior to the giving of the law, people were free to sacrifice in any place of their choosing; or in modern parlance wherever and whenever the spirit moved them.  Under the law, the people were to bring sacrifices to the Mishkan.  Sacrifices were now a part of a social and moral system that acknowledged the supremacy of the Lord and His ways.  In other words, Nadab and Abihu were stressing the “spontaneous aspect of worship, preferring it to a fixed routing of Tabernacle service dictated from above.”  The problem with sacrifices brought based on human impulse is that they are just that, the product of human impulse.  In other words, they individual is the central figure, not God.  In addition to which, religious observance based on human impulse relies on a level of emotionalism that is not sustainable.

“And if anyone of the house of Israel…partakes of any blood, I will set My face against the person who partakes of the blood” (17:10).  This is not the first or the last time that we are commanded not to consume blood.  Kosher meat does not contain blood.  After being properly slaughtered the meat is salted and soaked to ensure that the blood is removed.  Beef or calves liver must be broiled if it is to be considered kosher.

Sexual Orientation
“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” (18:22).  This prohibition concerning homosexual behavior was later enlarged to include lesbian relations.  According to some this prohibition really was part of Torah’s anti-idolatry stance.  Homosexual practices were tied to certain idolatrous cults and one of the themes of the Torah is that whatever idolaters do, we do the opposite or at least refrain from doing ourselves.  Both Reform and Conservative Judaism welcome all Jews regardless of sexual orientation.

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt…or of the land of Canaan…nor shall you follow their laws.  My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow my laws…” (18:3-4).  Assimilation is the great challenge for the Jew.  These verses have provided several different interpretations.  There are those commentators who take them literally and say that God was only talking about Egypt and Canaan.  There are those who view the mention of these two nations as a metaphor.  To them these words are a clarion call to avoid any contact with learning that is not Jewish.  And then there is the middle ground, which allows us to learn from the civilizations in which we live so long as those teachings do not compromise our Judaism.  There are those who would say that American Jews in the middle of the twentieth century went too far in their zeal to become Americanized.  Recently we have seen reaching out for more tradition or the updating of those traditions to ensure that our lives are rich as both Americans and as Jews.

The Land of Israel
“For all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and they became defiled.  So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you” (18:27-28).  This sedrah reminds of the uniqueness of the Promised Land.  Nations outside of the land of Canaan sinned in the same manner, as did the Canaanites.  But those people were not exiled.  What may be tolerable in other places will not be allowed in what is supposed to be a Holy Land.  According to some interpreters of these verses, the ultimate punishment is not death, but exile from the land.  To be in exile from the land is thought to be a form of exile from God.

Quick Quiz
1.                What is the origin of the English Term “scapegoat?”  In Leviticus 16:22, the Torah describes the goat on which all the sins of the Israelites were placed.  The scapegoat is the innocent individual on whom unfair blame is placed for myriad of individual or social ills.
2.                What two offenses carried the punishment of being “cut off from one’s people?”  According to Leviticus 17:8-10, sacrificing at a place other than the Mishkan and the eating of blood would be punished in the manner.  Note that being cut off from the house of Israel, what we call excommunication or ostracism, was seen as a severe punishment - a form of spiritual and social death that could be more painful than capital punishment.
3.                What reason does God give for driving out the current inhabitants of the Promised Land?  According to Leviticus 18:24, the Canaanites would lose possession of their land because of their sexual excesses.
(Questions inspired by Nelson’s Amazing Bible Trivia)

Kedoshim (Holy)
19:1-20:27 Vayikra (Leviticus)

Kedoshim is certainly the best sedrah in Vayikra (Leviticus) and some say in the entire Torah.  It contains sixty-one commandments, all of which are listed under Themes below.  There are so many of them and so many of them are so rich in meaning that there will be no attempt to discuss them all.  Some commentators consider that Chapter 19 stands alone as the Holiness Code.  Regardless, Chapter 19 includes a restatement of the Ten Commandments although not in the order found in Shemot or Devarim.  It also contains the first statement of what is now called the Golden Rule (19:18).  The Sedrah takes its name from the opening words, “You shall be holy (“Kedoshim tihyu”), for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”

Chapter 19 - Holiness Code
Restatement of the Ten Commandments (Plaut)
1.                I the Lord am your God (v. 4,end);
2.                You shall have no other gods (v. 4, beginning);
3.                You shall not swear falsely (v. 12);
4.                Remember the Sabbath (v. 3);
5.                Honor your father and your mother (v. 3);
6.                You shall not murder (v. 16);
7.                You shall not commit adultery (v. 29);
8.                You shall not steal (v. 11);
9.                You shall not bear false witness (v. 16);
10.             You shall not covet (v.18).

As you can see from the list above, the commandments cover a wide range of human emotions and needs from the mundane to the most noble.  And just in case anything specific was left out, the injunctions to not deal deceitfully or falsely with each other covers all of the bases.  This chapter is very popular with a significant segment of American Jewry because it deals with a whole host of what are popularly called Social Justice Issues.  Responding to these issues has been one of the way that many American Jews express their belief in Judaism and make it a living, vital part of their existence.

It includes everything from rules about paying workers on time to using honest weights and measures to providing for the needs of the less fortunate.  In fact the origin of much of what we call modern social welfare legislation can be found in this chapter.  For example:
·        Americans with Disabilities Act - Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.
·        Fair Labor Standards Act - Do not hold the wages of the hired man overnight.
·        Bureau of Standards - You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, etc.
·        Welfare Reform creating Workfare Programs - Leaving the corners of your fields, etc. for the poor.  In other words, the needs of the poor were to be cared for, but the poor were to be workers not beggars.

Chapter 20 - Punishment
The Stone Chumash takes the view that this chapter contains the punishments for violating many of the laws given in chapters 18 and 19 of Vayikra.  The sedrah would seem to be reinforcing the notion that there is a connection between what was considered sexual degeneracy and idolatry.  We have said repeatedly that many practices were forbidden to the Israelites because they corresponded to pagan rituals.  In 20:24, we are told why should obey all of these laws.  The Jew is different not because he wants to be different but because God has commanded him to be different, “I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples.”  And just as the sedrah begins with the term “holy,” its penultimate statement returns to the same term, “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (20:26).

212.          To have reverence for one’s parents (19:3).
213.          Prohibition against turning to idol worship (19:4).
214.          Prohibition against making an idol (19:4).
215.          Prohibition against eating meat of a sacrificed animal on the third day after the sacrifice was brought (19:5-8).
216.          Prohibition against reaping to the very end of one’s field (19:9-10).
217.          Instead, one must leave a portion of one’s harvest for the poor and the stranger (19:9-10).
218.          Prohibition against gathering the gleanings (19:9-10).
219.          Instead, they are to be left for the poor (19:9-10).
220.          Prohibition against reaping all the fruit of one’s vineyard (19:10).
221.          Instead, one must leave part of the vineyard unreaped, and available for the poor (19:10).
222.          Prohibition against gathering the fallen fruit of one’s vineyard (19:10).
223.          Instead, the fallen produce should be left for the poor and the stranger (19:10).
224.          The prohibition against theft (19:11).
225.          The prohibition against acting deceitfully (19:11).
226.          The prohibition against taking an oath over a false denial (19:12).
227.          The prohibition against taking any other kind of false oath (19:12).
228.          The prohibition against cheating another person (19:13).
229.          The prohibition of robbery (19:13).
230.          The prohibition against delaying payment to a day laborer (19:13).
231.          The prohibition against cursing the deaf (19:14).
232.          The prohibition against tripping the blind (19:14).
233.          Directive to judges not to pervert justice (19:15).
234.          Directive to judges not to favor an eminent person (19:15).
235.          Directive to judges to render fair judgments (19:15).
236.          The prohibition against spreading malicious gossip (19:16).
237.          The obligation to defend victims of violence or any person whose life otherwise is in danger (19:16).
238.          The prohibition against nurturing a silent hatred against another (19:17).
239.          – 240. The obligation to rebuke, but not shame, a person who is behaving wrongly.
241.          The prohibition against taking revenge (19:18).
242.          The prohibition against bearing a grudge (19:18).
243.          The Commandment to love one’s fellow human being “as yourself” (19:18).
244.          The prohibition against mating animals of different species (19:19).
245.          The prohibition against sowing together different kinds of seed (19:19).
246.          The prohibition against eating a fruit tree’s produce during its first three years (19:23).
247.          The obligation to set aside as sacred the fruit of the fourth year (19:24).
248.          The prohibition against eating blood (19:26).
249.          The prohibition against practicing divination (19:26).
250.          The prohibition against soothsaying (19:26).
251.          The prohibition against a man shaving the hair from his temples (19:27).
252.          The prohibition against a man shaving the hair from the corners of his beard (19:27).
253.          The prohibition against tattooing oneself (19:28).
254.          The obligation to show respect for the sanctuary (19:30).
255.          The prohibition against acting as a medium (19:31).
256.          The prohibition against acting as a wizard (19:31).
257.          The obligation to show respect to the elderly (19:32).
258.          The prohibitions against using dishonest weights (19:35).
259.          The obligation to use honest weights (19:35).
260.          The prohibition against cursing one’s parents (20:9).
261.          The obligation to execute one convicted of marrying a woman and her mother (as well as the two women) (20:14).
262.          The prohibition against following the customs practiced by the idolatrous nations living in Canaan in biblical times (20:23).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Thou Shalt Not Steal
We read this injunction as part of the Decalogue (Shemot 20:13) and as part of the Holiness Code (Vayikra 19:11).  In Shemot the command is written in the singular and is interpreted to be a prohibition against kidnapping.  In Vayikra it is written in the plural and is interpreted to mean stealing goods or objects.

Stumbling Blocks
The command against putting a stumbling block before the blind (19:13) goes beyond the obvious of somebody with a visual impairment.  The command also means that you are not allowed to take advantage of somebody’s ignorance.  Full disclosure is the rule of the day.  The concept of Let the Buyer Beware is not part of Jewish ethical behavior (i.e., slick business dealings are not holy).

“Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich.”  Both halves of this injunction would seem to be in jeopardy today.  There are those wits that talk about the Golden Rule - he who has the gold makes the rules.  At the same time, there are those who use the lack of material wealth as an excuse for a variety of criminal and/or depraved behavior.  As Jews, our Torah tells us that favoritism based on either consideration moves away from a just society and away from God.

Mothers and Fathers
The Decalogue and the Holiness Code call upon us to honor or revere our mothers and fathers.  (Note - it does not say parents.  This would indicate that in Judaism a child specifically gets a mother and a father).  Children may disobey their mothers or fathers if they command them to do something in violation of the Torah.  As we can see from the daily recitation of the Shema and the commandments about Pesach, mothers and fathers have an obligation to train and teach their children.  It is not a one-way street.

The Golden Rule
The so-called Golden Rule is found in the Torah.  “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (19:18).  Do not feel bad if you thought it originated elsewhere.  No less a scholar than the English philosopher John Stuart Mill did not know it was in the Torah.  There are those who contend that the law as stated in Vayikra refers only to Jews and that it took others to turn it into a universal expression.  The Hebrew word for neighbor is “rea.”  As Rabbi Hertz points out, the term “rea” is used in Shemot 11:2 when talking about the Egyptians.  This command should not be read on its own.  Rather, it should be seen as a continuation of the early writings, “You shall not take vengeance or bear grudge against your countrymen.”  There is a famous story about Hillel concerning this statement.  It is too long for this Guide, but I am sure you can find it in the notes of most Chumashim.  Hillel does add a slight twist to the command by restating it as “What is distasteful to you, don’t do it to another person.”  He then says that all the rest of it (the Torah) is commentary and go study it.  In other words, accomplishing this lofty goal is based on the whole corpus of Torah law and its attendant commentary.

The Whole Torah
“You shall observe My laws” or “You shall observe My decrees.” (19:19).  God does not say we should observe “some of My laws.”  God does not say you should observe the laws you like or the laws that make sense to you.  This statement would seem to go along with others we have seen about not adding to or subtracting from, the Law.  Missing the mark is one thing.  Denying the target exists is another matter entirely.

“You shall be holy” (19:2).  We are commanded to be holy, but what does it mean to be holy?  "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts.  The whole earth is full of His glory.”  God is holy.  So for us to be holy may mean that we should try to emulate God as exemplified by the laws He has given us.  But while the laws may be a first step towards reaching holiness, observing them in a superficial, rote manner will not bring us to that level of elevation we are seeking.  As far back as the 13th century, the Ramban (Moses Nachmanides) cautioned against those who followed the letter of the law without letting it shape their lives in a meaningful manner.  When we pray, one of the things we pray for is that our prayers not just become rote and repetitious for this would make them unacceptable; make them unholy.  There is tons of material on this topic that we can pursue over the years.  So for now, let us leave it at this.  To be holy may mean the work of elevating the mundane to the level of the spiritual.  The commandments provide us with the guide for the work of that elevation.  Holiness may also be that sensation we experience when we appeal to the best in ourselves and see the best in others.  Since God is all that is truly holy, then for man being holy is more of a trip than a destination.

Predicting the Future
In this portion we read, “Neither shall you practice divination or soothsaying” (16:26).  As Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, a Jerusalem journalist and the Director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews wrote in “Not In The Stars,” “Jewish tradition prohibits the use of the stars, omens and signs to predict the future.…  They believed that human beings, through their actions, could raise themselves beyond the jurisdiction of the stars.…  The Torah prohibits divination not only because the message of soothsayers sets limits on our freedom, but because for Jews, the future itself is holy.  Rather than speak of heaven as the eventual place of bliss and reward, Jews speak of ha’olam haba - the rectified world of the future.  Ha’olam haba is usually translated as ‘the world to come,’ but a more precise translation is ‘the world that is coming.’  The promised, perfected future is speeding toward us at the same rate, at least, that we are rushing toward it.  The future has an existence that stands independent of whatever the signs and omens of the present indicate.  Hidden away in inner dimensions of reality where the astrologer’s eye does not reach, the light of that future is already shining.  (On the Sabbath, ‘the fountain of the world to come,’ this light is partially revealed.)  According to Abraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook…the task of a righteous Jew is to draw the light of that rectified future into the reality of the present.  ‘To the extent that the light of the coming world shines into this world everything is raised up…In order to love this world properly, one must sink oneself deeply into the love of the world to come.’  The Jewish love affair with the future has the power to transform our concept of time and change our experience of the present.”

9:7-15 Amos

The Man:  Amos was probably the first of the literary prophets, even though his book has been placed third among the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets.  Unlike other prophets we have studied, we know a fair amount about him from the text itself.  He was from Tekoa, a small town near Bethlehem in Judah, the Southern Kingdom.  He was “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” and not a professional seer.  He only assumed the role of prophet because God said, “Go prophesy unto My people Israel.”  Although Amos lived in the Southern Kingdom, he preached in Israel, the Northern Kingdom.  The text says that he lived at the time of the King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II, King of Israel.  The text also references an earthquake and an eclipse.  Therefore we can safely assume that Amos preached from 765 B.C.E. to 750 B.C.E.  For the Northern Kingdom, this was a period of great wealth and prosperity.  But it was also a time of increasing income disparity with the newly emerging rich exploiting the ever-growing number of poor people.  It was this lack of social and economic justice that would animate the preaching of Amos.  Trouble came when he predicted the death of the king and the destruction of the kingdom.  It was at this point that the Amaziah, the “false priest” at the shrine of Beth-el condemned the prophet for treason.  However, instead of being put to death, Amos was banished and forced to return to Judah.  This lenient treatment may have hinted at his popularity.  We do not know how Amos met his death.

The Message:  The verses found in this haftarah are the final lines in the Book of Amos.  He reminds the Israelites that they are not the only nation God has brought forth (9:7).  But in mentioning the liberation from Egypt, he is reminding the Israelites that their liberation was different.  It took place so that they could go to Sinai and receive the commandments.  The Israelites have forgotten this part of the unique relationship.  Since they have turned their back on God’s laws, the will be punished.  God will destroy “the sinful monarchy” (referring to the monarchs of the Northern Kingdom) and punish the whole house of Israel.  There is hope.  “I will not utterly destroy the House of Jacob.” (9:8).  The haftarah and the book itself end with a majestic vision of a future redemption (9:13-15).  Just so you will not think that I am the only one who views it this way, consider what Norman Podhoretz says about these verses in his new book, The Prophets.  “These sumptuously lyrical verses fall upon our ears with something of the same effect as does the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, entitled by the composer ‘glad and grateful feelings after the storm.’”

Theme-Link:  The sedrah ends with a warning that God will expel the Israelites from the land if they “contaminate” it by not following the commandments.  The haftarah begins with a prophecy of destruction because the Israelites have turned their back on the commandments and contaminated the land.

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 3

3:2 Rabbi Chanina, an assistant of the high priest said:  Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive.  Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradyon said:  If two sit together and no words of Torah are interchanged between them, theirs is the session of the scornful, as it is written (Psalm 1:1) "Nor sit in the seat of scoffers."  But when two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written (Malachi 3:16) "Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another.  The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name."  Scripture speaks here of two.  Whence do we learn that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Torah, the Holy One blessed be he, appoints him a reward?  Because it is written (Lamentations 3:28) "to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it."

Rabbi Chanina lived during the first and second centuries of the Common Era.  He is also referred to as Rabbi Chanina, Segan ha-Kohanim.  Segan is usually translated as deputy meaning he was the Deputy to the High Priest.  The Segan was the one who was authorized to take over from the High Priest on Yom Kippur “should the need arise.”  So once again we see that members of the priestly class played a key role in the creation of so-called Rabbinic Judaism.  In other words, the line between Sadducees and Pharisees was not necessarily as clear as people would have you believe.  When Chanina spoke of “the government” he was referring to Rome.  How do you think the reality of Roman Government shaped his views and helped create this statement?  Is this statement a precursor of Thomas Hobbes or is it a later day restatement of Jeremiah or is it a little of both?

Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradyon lived during the second century in the time preceding Bar Kochba’s Rebellion.  He is one of Ten Martyrs, Sages who were cruelly murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah.  Further proof of his belief that all should study Torah is the fact his younger daughter was the famous Beruryah, the quick witted and loving wife of the great Sage Me’ir who is mentioned over 3,000 times in the Talmud.  Ben Teradyon lived in a time when the spirits of the people were at a low ebb and that studying Torah was a capital crime.  How would this have caused him to deal first with the need for two to study Torah (think of the concept of “The Pairs”)?

Then how would this have caused him to deal with the issue of one person studying alone?  Later, classic Talmudic study would always involve two studying together.  However, given the danger of his time, the ever practical sage also was supplying a justification based on the TaNaCh for a person to study alone since studying alone was preferable (and safer) than not studying at all.

3:3 Rabbi Shimon said:  If three have eaten at one table and have not spoken over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead, for it is written (Isaiah 28:8) "All tables are covered with filthy vomit; no place is clean."  But if three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God, for it is written (Ezekiel 41:22) "He said to me, ‘This is the table that stands before the Lord.’"

Rabbi Shimon’s full name was Shimon bar Yochai.  He was so famous that he could be referred to without the patronymic and people knew who he was.  He was born at the beginning of the Second Century of the Common Era.  He studied with the great Rabbi Akiva.  Shimon and Me’ir (see reference above) were the only two Rabbis ordained by Akiva.  Do the math - does this have anything to do with the concept of “the threes” cited in this Mishnah?  “The threes” cited in this manner in the Mishnah has found its way into the customs surrounding the recitation of the Grace After Meals.  It also provides a clue as to the timing of the drinking of Third Cup of Wine at the Seder.  Finally, how did the political conditions create this Mishnah?  Shimon was an expert on Halakah as well as great teacher of ethics.  If you do not get to all of him when studying Chapter Three, relax, he appears again in Chapter Four.

Rabbi Chanina, the son of Chachinai, said, ‘He who keeps awake at night, and goes on his way alone, and turns his heart to idle thoughts, such a one sins against himself.’” (3:5).  Rabbi Chanina lived in the first half of the second century A.D.  He was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.  Chanina is stressing the importance of studying Torah in the truest sense of that term.  Chanina sees the opposite as leading to folly which ultimately leads to sin.  The sedrah commands that “you shall speak of them (God’s laws) while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way…” (6:7).  Chanina warns not to walk on the “way alone.”  In other words, travel with somebody so you can talk with him about Torah.  If you travel alone your thoughts might wander to matters of frivolity that will ultimately lead you to behave in an unfit manner.

3:7 “Rabbi Elazar a man of Bartota says:  ‘Give Him what is His, because you and all that you have are His.  That was also expressed by (King) David who said:  All things that come from You and we have given you only what is Yours.’”

Rabbi Elazar was contemporary of Rabbi Akiva.  He lived in a town called Bartota, which is in a section of Israel known as the Galilee.  According to one commentator, Elazar was so generous that fundraisers did not stop at his home when looking for donations.  They were afraid “he would contribute more than his means permitted.”  So words about contributing to support the community and those in need are especially appropriate coming from a man who practiced what he preached.  Since all that we have is a gift from God, we should not be stingy in our giving because He is not stingy in His giving.  The quote from King David is found in First Chronicles (29:14).  It comes at the end of the book when King David is encouraging the people to make contributions for the Temple that will be built by his son, Solomon.

3:6 Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa, a man of Kfar Chanina says:  “If ten (people) sit and engage in Torah study, the Divine Presence abides among them, as it is said, ‘God stands in the Divine Assembly’ (Psalms 82:1).  How do we know that it applies to five?  Because of the verse ‘He has found His bundle on the earth’ (Amos 9; 6).  How do we know it applies even to three?  Because of the verse ‘He will judge in the midst of judges’ (Psalms 82:2).  How do we know it applies even to two?  The verse teaches, ‘Then they who feared Adonai spoke on to the other and Adonai listened and heard’ (Malachi 3:16).  It applies even to one, since it is said, ‘In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come and bless you.’”

Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa lived during the second century of the Common Era.  He was a younger contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and student of Rabbi Meir one of the great sages of the day.  This is an appropriate verse to study since it begins by talking about ten people just as the Torah portion talks about ten people.  In the case of the sedrah, it is ten spies.  In the case of the Mishnah it is ten people coming together for the study of Torah.  Rabbi Chalafta liked to include texts from the TaNaCh in his sayings to enhance their credibility; hence the quote (and the Biblical source) for each of his offerings is found here.  “Rabbi Chalfta contends that God’s presence joins those who study Torah.  He works backward from the Minyan (ten) to the solitary student (one) since anybody who studies Torah is performing a Mitzvah.”  Why are we encouraged to study with others?  According to the sages, “The more people join in performing a good deed, the greater its cumulative value.”  Why was the number five acceptable of merit?  Because when Amos used the term bundle, he was referring to a handful and a hand is made up of five fingers.  Why was the number three of merit?  Because as David points out in the Psalm God is present where judges sit and a court was made up of three judges.  Hopefully study of this verse will help you to understand that references to certain numbers in Jewish ceremonies and practices is grounded in the basic text and not just the product of caprice or whim.

3:19 “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given; and world is judged by grace, yet all is according to the amount of work.”

Verses 17 through 20 of Chapter Three are all attributed to Rabbi Akiva.  Akiva is considered to be one of the greatest teachers in Jewish history.  He lived from 60 to 135.  In other words, he was born ten years before the destruction of the Temple and died a martyr’s death during the Bar Kochba Rebellion.  Akiva is living proof that even the wisest of men can make an error in judgment.  During the revolt against Rome in 135, Akiva erroneously declared that Bar Kochba was the Messiah.  The first part of the verse addresses the question of predestination versus free will.  As Rabbi Hertz says, “the verse lays down a fundamental doctrine” of Jewish belief.  “Despite the fact that God foresees the course which a man will adopt, when faced with the choice of two paths, man has free choice.”  God’s vision of time and the World is different than that of a man.  God sees the world as lighthouse keeper views the ships at sea.  He sees all of them at the same time.  He knows which ones are coming, which ones are leaving, which ones are in danger of sinking in the impending storm and which ones will make it safely to shore.  Man is like the captain of the ship.  His view is limited to what is at the horizon and he can only respond as the winds and currents change and shift.  The second half of the verse is a reminder that God is merciful in His judgment i.e., He gives us the benefit of the doubt.  But in the end, judgment is based on what we do here on earth.

Copyright, May, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin