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Chaim Saiman's Think Tank

by Chaim Saiman
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer

"In the garden of good and evil"

As explained by the Arizal, the great 16th century Kabbalist, Adam’s sin was a very sophisticated one. Until Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the possibility of evil, personified by the snake, resided outside of Man. Choosing between right and wrong was a simple choice, since Man could see with perfect clarity the total destruction inherent in evil. Man before the sin couldn’t commit a regular transgression because the reality of being disconnected from his Divine source was so clearly revealed to him.

However, Adam wanted to serve G-d on a higher level. Adam thought that in this environment of absolute clarity, it was too easy to serve Hashem. Hence, through choosing to conform to His command, the service of G-d was limited. He reasoned that it would be better to eat from the fruit and incorporate the evil inclination within himself, thereby clouding the line between good and evil. At that point, when wrestling with negativity, choosing to do good would be an even greater sanctification of G-d’s name and would result in even more reward on behalf of the servant. He thought that this challenge would make his service of the Almighty even greater. Clearly, Hashem disagreed. What was wrong with Adam’s line of reasoning?

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"The mirror has two faces"

According to Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, the Torah’s description of Noah being a righteous person in “his” generation can be read either as completely complimentary or somewhat critical. On the one hand, Noah was righteous despite his wicked surroundings. Even in the face of such moral adversity, Noah triumphed. Imagine if he lived in the company of Abraham! On the other hand, one can look at Noah’s righteousness as being merely in comparison to the depraved people of his generation. He was only considered righteous because he lived with such evil people. Had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been viewed as just a regular person.

In this discussion we find that our sages recognize and give credence to two distinct methods by which we can look at any given situation – from a limited perspective and from the broader scheme of things. How do we view ourselves? Do we look at our accomplishments and our character development in the limited scope of our family and community, or in the much larger scope of the entire world? In Noah’s case, our sages posited both views. What are the advantages and disadvantages to employing each method to the various scenarios in our own lives? When is one more appropriate than the other, and what can be gained by using both in tandem?

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"Testing, Testing, 1-2-3"

In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to the beginning of a series of ten tests which Hashem will administer to Abraham, climaxing next week with the ultimate test, the Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac). This concept of Divinely directed trials seems quite strange. What is their purpose? Clearly they aren’t for Hashem to find out how Abraham will react, since G-d is fully aware of what will happen in the future, just as He knows what happened in the past. Why does Hashem test Abraham? Maimonides answers by saying that these tests were meant to demonstrate Abraham’s greatness to the world. Abraham set a precedent for faithful obedience of Hashem’s will, and his proper choices even in the most difficult of circumstances would serve as a model for the rest of history as to how a person should behave. Nachmanides suggests that these tests served a different purpose. The goal was to actualize Abraham’s great potential and bring it into reality. G-d knows that Abraham is capable of passing the tests administered to him; Hashem does not present trials that are beyond a person’s capacity. However, the actual performance of a deed far outweighs the mere potential. After passing the tests, Abraham could be rewarded for what did, rather than for what he was merely capable of doing.

The trials and tribulations of our history present us with many challenges. Maimonides and Nachmanides offer two paths by which one can approach any given situation, with the benefits being either external or internal. Should we evaluate the events in our history as opportunities to show the world the proper way to act, using these moments to further our role as a “light unto the nations”; or should we size up these situations as opportunities to actualize our own vast potential? Similarly, on an individual level, when we are personally confronted with a challenge or trial, do we view it as an opportunity to show others the appropriate way to react; or as an opportunity to translate our own potential into reality? Is it possible -- and if so, is it advantageous -- to use both methods?

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"Fragile: Handle with prayer"

This week’s Torah portion presents us with an interesting query regarding Abraham’s behavior. After Abraham escorts the three angels on their way, Hashem informs him that the city of Sodom will be destroyed. Abraham responds with a lengthy and impassioned plea on behalf of the citizens of Sodom, arguing with Hashem that they should not be destroyed. For ten full verses, Abraham actually prays to Hashem to spare the notoriously wicked inhabitants of that city. At first glance this seems extremely strange and unexpected, for it would seem that Abraham should instead be praying for these wicked peoples’ demise! Why did Abraham, in fact, pray and beg Hashem to save the people of Sodom?

This question is highlighted upon considering Abraham’s response in another situation later in the portion. When Hashem commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, the verse states, “And he got up early in the morning” (Genesis 22:3) to sacrifice his son – no questions asked! The Midrash praises Abraham for his complete faith which he displayed in this act. Why didn’t Abraham pray to Hashem now? If you beg for wicked people to be allowed to live, why not beg that your righteous son be spared? And not only doesn’t Abraham pray that Isaac be saved, Abraham even wakes up early the next morning to sacrifice him, without flinching or hesitating for one moment. Our sages teach us that what Abraham did was in fact meritorious. Why would Abraham pray on behalf of the evil citizens of Sodom and not for the purpose of saving his own righteous son?

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"Give me a sign"

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent on a mission to find a wife for Isaac. In order to ensure that he selects the proper wife, Eliezer sets up a “test” as described in the Torah: “Behold, I am standing by the spring of water; let it be that the young woman who comes out to draw and to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me some water to drink from your jug,’ and who will answer, ‘You may drink and I will also draw water for your camels,’ she shall be the woman whom Hashem has designated for my master’s son’” (Genesis 24:43-44).

The Talmud (Tractate Chullin 95) in discussing the prohibition of practicing nichush (superstition), states that any nichush which is like Eliezer’s test is prohibited. Tosafos, the commentary on the Talmud by a school of the greatest scholars of the 12th and 13th centuries, interprets the Talmud’s words to mean that though Eliezer himself did not transgress the prohibition, if anyone else were to do a similar act then it would be considered nichush. Other prohibited activities include taking omens from crossing the paths of a cat or a deer, as well as conditioning one’s actions on unrelated phenomena. Conversely, since we believe that everything that happens in this world is not due to chance, but rather is willed by the Creator, there are many signs and omens which we do consider seriously. The wishing of “mazal tov,” literally translated as “good constellation,” seems to be ascribing some significance to the stars. Furthermore, the Talmud is replete with examples of our sages viewing natural and human occurrences as signs from above. For example, on Rosh Hashanah we eat various fruits as a sign for a sweet and productive year.

Many classic commentators attempt to bridge the gap between the prohibition of nichush and the necessity to view all occurrences as signs from above. Whichever theory one adopts, the underlying assumption remains that both elements are true, each in the appropriate framework. It is worthwhile for us to take a few minutes this Shabbat to think about how we view the world and how we take clues from the signs that G-d sends us, while not frivolously acting upon insignificant occurrences.

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"Truthfully Speaking"

The Torah exhorts us, "Midvar sheker tirchak – Distance yourself from a false word" (Exodus 23:7). Yet throughout Genesis, we find several glaring examples of the Patriarchs bending the truth. Abraham and Isaac both altered the truth regarding their marriages to Sarah and Rebecca. In order to avoid being killed by the corrupt people of the time, they claimed that they were in fact siblings. However, possibly the most blatant example occurs in this week’s Torah portion when Jacob disguises himself as Esau in order to receive the blessings from Isaac. It is interesting to note that the above verse does not say outright "Do not lie." It rather teaches that we should distance ourselves from telling a lie. Does this imply that there are mitigating circumstances in which lying might be allowed, perhaps even appropriate?

The Talmud states that it is permitted to "change" one’s words for the sake of peace, and the sages bring an example from G-d Himself. When Sarah first hears that she will be blessed with a son, she laughs within herself, saying, "My husband is old." However, Hashem relates the incident to Abraham a little differently, quoting Sarah as saying, "I am old."

It is very clear from the words of the rabbis that "emet – truth" is of fundamental importance. At the same time, the above sources seem to suggest that there are times when changing the truth is in fact the right thing to do. When must one be scrupulously honest, and when might it be permitted to alter the truth?

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"Politically (In)Correct"

In this week’s portion, the Torah relates the story of Dinah being abducted and raped by Shechem. Jacob and his sons reach an agreement with Shechem that if he and his entire city circumcise themselves, he may marry Dinah and the two groups will maintain friendly relations. Surprisingly, Shechem takes them up on the offer, and on the third day after the circumcision, Simeon and Levi attack the city of Shechem, decimate all of its male inhabitants, and rescue their sister Dinah. Upon returning from their mission, Simeon and Levi are greeted by a distressed Jacob, who accuses them of acting rashly and possibly inciting the surrounding tribes to come and attack. The two brothers’ answer to their father’s claim is simple and straightforward: "Shall our sister be treated like a harlot?" (Genesis 34:31).

This story is difficult to understand and certainly requires serious study to accurately interpret (see commentary of Ramban). Amongst the issues with which one must grapple is the fact that the brothers’ response is left ringing in our ears, for the Torah does not record Jacob as responding to their claim. One must ask oneself who is correct in this case. The brothers do not dispute Jacob’s assertion that their attack was "politically" dangerous; rather they respond that the crime against their sister was so terrible, hence political considerations should be overruled.

The 90’s have been characterized by the ever-increasing need to be "politically correct", to hide one’s true feelings in light of external considerations. However, as the brothers felt in this week’s Torah portion, there are certainly times when one must stand up for what he believes to be right and worry about the consequences later. Although we can begin by considering who was correct in the above disagreement, we must then extend our probe to other circumstances. Is any one approach consistently appropriate, or are there times that one of them is the best way of handling the situation? When should we be pragmatic, like Jacob, and when should we be zealous, like the brothers?

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"I have a dream"

The latter half of the book of Genesis seems to be dominated by the occurrence of dreams. Hashem appears to Jacob in two dreams, one when he leaves the land of Israel on his way to the house of Laban, and another twenty years later telling him to leave the house of Laban to return to the land of Israel. Further, Hashem appears to Laban in a dream, commanding him not to harm Jacob. In this and next week’s Torah portions, Joseph first becomes infamous and later famous due to dreams.

The Talmud states that a dream represents 1/60th of prophecy. The dreams of our forefathers certainly played an important role in their personal lives, as well as in the development of our nation. However, what about our dreams? What do they mean, and what should we learn from them? In the final chapter of Tractate Berachot, the Talmud dedicates several pages to discussing the symbolism of various things seen in dreams. In the same discussion, the sages also relate that "just as there is no wheat without chaff, there is no dream without false things." This is proven from Joseph’s dream that the sun (representing his father), the moon (his mother), and the stars (his brothers) would one day bow to him. Although his father and brothers did bow, his mother had already passed away years before Joseph’s dream.

How should we regard our dreams? Should we seek to understand them as a form of prophecy, or should we disregard them due to our inability to fully interpret them? Are they merely mental wanderings, or messages from Above?

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"Balancing Act"

In a dramatic turn of events that occurs in this week's Torah portion, Joseph finds himself in front of Pharaoh for the purpose of interpreting his dreams. As a result of Joseph's success, he is made viceroy of Egypt and is charged with directing the national economy as the country prepares for the upcoming years of famine. In functioning as the royal dream interpreter, Joseph views himself as a mere vessel of the Divine message, taking absolutely no credit for himself, as he informs Pharaoh, "[Interpreting dreams] is beyond me; it is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh's welfare" (Genesis 41:16).

In contrast, Rashi in his final comment to last week's Torah portion, quotes the Midrash which chastises Joseph for placing his trust in the royal butler and not in Hashem. While still in prison, Joseph beseeched the butler, "If only you would think of me with yourself when [Pharaoh] benefits you, and you will do me a kindness, and mention me to Pharaoh, then you would get me out of this prison" (ibid. 40:14). The sages claim that Joseph was punished with an extra two years in prison as a result of not trusting G-d for his salvation, hence the opening words of this week's portion: "And it was at the end of two years that Pharaoh dreamt. . ." (ibid. 41:1).

It is difficult to understand the Midrash's criticism of Joseph. Joseph was thrown into jail on account of false accusations by Potiphar's wife. After rotting away in prison for ten years, is it unreasonable for him to ask his friends in power for some assistance? Would any of us have acted differently? More generally, these questions revolve around the tension between our obligation to make efforts to obtain our material needs, as opposed to the belief that ultimately it is Hashem Who is the Provider. Though this issue is dealt with extensively by the medieval Spanish Torah philosophers, we can nonetheless consider some of these questions on our own. (Please also see Rabbi Kapenstein's article in last week's Torah from Dixie.) How can these two seemingly opposite concerns be reconciled? Why does the Midrash see it fit to criticize Joseph for his actions? The question becomes even more complicated when one considers that it was the very same butler who later suggested to Pharaoh that Joseph may be able to interpret the Egyptian ruler's dreams. Further, how do we view our own initiatives in light of the fact that G-d may or may not want us to choose that path?

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"My Life"

Imagine the excitement bubbling throughout Egypt upon hearing the news that Jacob would be arriving in town. Jacob was the grandson of the famed Abraham (who had certainly left his mark on the Egyptian scene) and the father of the country's greatest celebrity.

Jacob's reputation as a spiritual giant certainly preceded him, and gained him an audience with the Pharaoh himself. This meeting would surely be covered by the international media, and would provide Jacob with the rare opportunity to speak to the entire civilized world. This depiction makes understanding Jacob's response to Pharaoh all the more difficult to understand: "The days of the years of my sojourns have been a hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns" (Genesis 47:9).

Admittedly, Jacob's life was tragic, as the narrative of the past few Torah portions detail. However, should Jacob not have found a more appropriate time to reflect on his life? Why did Jacob, the primary living representative of monotheism, not use this unique opportunity to speak about the subject to which he devoted his life?

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"Sibling Rivalry"

One of the major themes running through the book of Genesis is siblings, or more specifically, sibling rivalry. With only a few exceptions, every pair of brothers discussed in Genesis have an antagonistic relationship. Beginning with the very first pair of brothers known to Mankind, the siblings of the book of Genesis seem to be compelled to engage in disputes, fights, and even murders. Though the commentators offer various explanations, interpretations, and rationalizations, for the actions of Abel and Cain, Isaac and Yishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers, their behavior remains difficult to understand.

It is interesting to note that the first pair of siblings in the book of Exodus - Aaron and Moses - do not behave like the aforementioned brothers of Genesis. Why are the siblings of the book of Genesis destined to dispute? Though Genesis contains very few laws and mitzvot, it is nonetheless chosen to be the first book of the Torah. Our sages explain that the book of Genesis teaches us about derech eretz (proper behavior and manners), which is a prerequisite for the rest of the Torah. Why then are we provided with no role models of loving brothers? What are we to learn about the development of humanity in general, and the nation of Israel in particular, from the actions and reactions of the brothers portrayed in the book of Genesis?

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"Baby Moses"

One of the problems that we face when reading the Torah is, believe it or not, that we know too much. Since we are already familiar with much of the general story line, we tend to miss the subtleties and complexities of the unfolding plot. This week's Torah portion is a perfect example of this situation.

We know that the daughter of Pharaoh pulls Moses out of the Nile and raises him as her son. With this information in hand, the plan of Moses' mother Yocheved seems almost logical. But if we step back and remember that nobody knew that Moses would be saved, we must ask, what in fact was her original intention? Certainly Yocheved was not the only woman in her predicament. We can only assume that every Jewish mother in Egypt lay awake at nights attempting to devise a plan to save her child from the Egyptian murderers. Furthermore, every law-abiding Egyptian was probably expected to bring any Jewish children to the proper authorities.

What, then, was Yocheved's plan as she built her son's floating cradle? What was Miriam expecting to see and do? Was this an act of nonsensical desperation, an ultimate act of faith, or a carefully thought-out scenario?

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"Reluctant Leader"

Last week we mentioned that often it is our familiarity with the biblical narrative which inhibits us from appreciating its subtleties. Another example can be found in the description of the exodus story. In the upcoming Torah portions, we witness as Moses develops from the shepherd who "happened" to come across the burning bush, to the greatest of all prophets who speaks to god "face to face". Clearly, Moses does not become the leader of the Jews overnight, rather this process has many stages. In both last week's and this week's Torah portion, a reoccurring theme is Moses' lack of enthusiasm to carry out Hashem's plan to face Pharaoh and take the people out of Egypt. At the burning bush, G-d needs to prod Moses (and give him a bag of tricks) to go and face Pharaoh. After the first setback that Moses encounters with Pharaoh, he seems willing to give up on his mission.

If we compare Moses to another reluctant prophet, his actions seems all the more surprising. Jonah, whom we read about on Yom Kippur, also tried to escape G-d's assignment, but he did so because he feared that the dwellers of Ninvei (the gentile city he was sent to admonish about their corrupt behavior) would heed his words of warning to repent, thereby making the rebellious Jews (who refused to repent) seem worse by comparison. Moses, on the other hand, should have been elated at the opportunity to free his people from slavery.

Surely a man as great as Moses has reason for his reluctance. It is hard to imagine that someone who was G-d's prophet did not believe that G-d was capable of delivering the Jews from slavery. What then is the cause of Moses' reluctance? Why does he view his mission as doomed to failure? What could possibly be the other side of the equation which leads Moses to think that facing Pharaoh may have been a mistake? Thinking about these questions will give us a fuller picture of the exodus and allow us to appreciate the narrative on a much deeper level.

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The narrative of the ten plagues started in last week's Torah portion and continues this week. The very thought of G-d going to war with Pharaoh is awe inspiring, and one of the most exciting episodes in the Torah. However, not all plagues are created equally, as the Torah uses different methods of conveying the story to us. In looking through the text, I found that the following details may vary from plague to plague.

1) Is there a warning from Moses to Pharaoh preceding the plague? 2) Can the Egyptian magicians repeat the feat? 3) Is the Egyptian's experience of the plague contrasted with that of the Jews? 4) Is an action necessary to onset the plague? 5) If so, who does it? 6) Is an action needed to end the plague? 7) Is Moses called by Pharaoh to end the plague? 8) Is this plague compared to previous (or future) natural disasters in Egyptian history?

Can you find any variables that I missed? Your homework is to chart out the different characteristics relative to the plagues. Are there any patterns in how the plagues are described? Do certain attributes always come together, and are other ones exclusive? If the Torah relates some information about a particular plague, does it apply only to that plague or to all the other plagues as well? The Midrash and some of the classical commentators do address some of these issues, but certainly not all of them. Let me know what patterns/theories you come up with.

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Stop Complaining!

As the Jewish people witnessed the Red Sea collapse on the pursuing Egyptians, they must have looked back at the recent events in utter amazement. In a matter of a few short months, they were miraculously transformed from a collection of downtrodden slaves to the most respected tribe in the world. To top it all off, they became a nation of prophets at the sea. The begging question is: What happened afterwards? Immediately after the Torah records the Song at the Sea, we are told of the Jews' complaints concerning the lack of water, food, and water again. Not only do they complain over the lack of provisions, but they begin to doubt G-d as well (see Exodus 17:7). Further, though Hashem quells their thirst and hunger, the tone of the complaints becomes increasingly aggressive (compare Exodus 15:24 to 16:2-3, to 17:2-3).

How did things in the desert unravel so quickly? Why does the temporary lack of provisions turn into distrust of Hashem? Alternatively, we can reverse the question and ask what was Hashem's original plan? Surely He "foresaw" the logistical problem of a three-million person encampment in the desert? Why did He wait until the Jews were thirsty to provide them with water?

For those who are especially ambitious, compare these three episodes to the complaints of the Jews in Numbers 11. Why are these complaints repeated one year into the desert journey? What is different about those complaints?

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"Back to the Future"
This week's Torah portion begins with what is probably one of the only times in history when a father-in-law thinks that his son-in-law is working too hard. (But then again, Moses was no ordinary son-in-law.) The Torah tells us that when Yitro saw that Moses was sitting in judgment from dawn until dusk, he advised him to delegate authority and run the judicial system more efficiently. The question which arises is determining when this episode took place. Though this story appears in the Bible directly before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, it seems strange that Moses would be "making known the decrees of Hashem and His teachings" (Exodus 18:16), and later instructing his subordinates to "caution the people regarding the decrees and the teachings" (ibid. 18:20), when the Torah was not yet given! Hence the Talmud (Tractate Zevachim 115a) records a dispute amongst the sages as to whether Yitro visits the Israelite camp before or after the giving of the Torah. (During the middle ages, the Ramban and Ibn Ezra continue this debate - refer to their commentaries for proofs to either side.)

According to the opinion that this passage occurs before the giving of the Torah, the most obvious question to ask is what laws of G-d are the Jews seeking which require Moses' overtime efforts? However, even if we were to adopt the opinion that Yitro came after the giving of the Torah, why does the Bible place this narrative before the giving of the Torah narrative? Although the events in the Torah are occasionally recorded out of chronological order, there must be some thematic reason for the sequence. Is there information in the Yitro episode which is a prerequisite for appreciating Hashem's revelation to Man? (Hint: Yitro seems to come to the realization of the monotheistic G-d on his own; how does this relate to the Jews' experience?)

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"A lesson in civics"

Parshat Mishpatim contains G-d's commandments to Mankind on how to carry out civil justice. One of the central questions which arises is did G-d intend for these laws to serve as instructions for Mankind on how to establish a moral society? Or are these laws supposed to teach the Jews how to live a life of holiness according to the precepts of the Torah? In short, are these civil laws particularistic or universalistic?

One of the ways to test this lies in understanding how these laws apply to non-Jews. The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 56b) states that one of the seven Noahide laws in which all of humanity is commanded, is the establishment of civil justice (dinim). However, the Talmud leaves much room for interpretation as to what system of justice the gentiles are expected to develop. Several possibilities could be offered:

1) G-d could want the gentiles to have the exact same civil law as we do, hence the verses in our Torah portion apply to all humanity. 2) The scope of their law should be similar to ours, yet the details may differ. 3) Any system which promotes peace and equity is acceptable. These three approaches are adopted by the following classical commentaries respectively: Rama (responsa #10), Ramban (Genesis 34:13), and inferred from Rambam (Laws of Kings 9:14 and 10:11).

To be sure, practically speaking, we are not in a position to enforce the Torah's mandate on the secular law. However, on the conceptual level the question nonetheless remains. Did Hashem expect the revelation of civil laws to apply to non-Jews as well, and if so, in what capacity? Further, what does the answer to this question teach us about the expectations that Hashem has from us Jews specifically?

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"Idols in the Mishkan?"

One of the most common refrains in the Torah is its warnings against idolatry. Over and over again, we are admonished against committing this most serious of sins. Further, a large percentage of Tanach (the Bible) revolves around the prophets' message of abolishing idolatry, and the Jewish people's inability to vanquish it from their midst. Considered in this context, the Torah's commandment in this week's portion to fashion the Cherubim, two golden structures to be placed in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), is all the more astonishing. As if the command to build two idols is not enough, Hashem tells Moses that they should be placed in the Holy of Holies upon the Ark, where they would act as the focal point of the entire Mishkan! Though there are various interpretations of what the Cherubim looked like (including figures of: male and female, children, birds, oxen), the inescapable conclusion is that they are essentially idols. Why does Hashem "act so out of character" and command the fashioning of the Cherubim?

Possible approaches to this question rest in the "usage" of the Cherubim. The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 54) engages in an extended discussion as to if, when, and how the Cherubim were seen. Though differing opinions exist, there is consensus regarding the fact that they were viewed very rarely. Furthermore, it is worthwhile to consider that in ancient (and modern eastern) temples, the idol was the focal point of worship and was clearly visible to all. In fact, this was the reason that people came to these temples of idolatry. Contrarily, in the Mishkan, and subsequently in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Cherubim were sectioned off and covered. Considering these points may be helpful in seeking an answer. (One further question: Can the sin of the golden calf be put in perspective based on understanding the Cherubim, and are the two so different?)

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"A day like Yom Kippur?"

Purim is certainly the most fun, and probably the most fascinating holiday on the Jewish calendar. Jewish law, which stresses temperance, seriousness, and contrition, on Purim gives way to lightheadedness and what appears to be a drunken free-for-all. However, in my opinion, one of the most outlandish aspects of Purim is neither the costumes nor the alcohol-based parties, rather a statement made by the Sfas Emes, a 19th century Chassidic master. Based upon a hint to the holiday of Purim within the words "Yom Kippurim", the Sfas Emes claimed that Purim is even greater than Yom Kippur! (When used as a prefix, the Hebrew letter "kaf" means "like or similar". As such, "Yom Kippurim" can be interpreted to mean "a day like Purim," implying that Yom Kippur contains only a fraction of the holiness that Purim does!)

At first glance, nothing could seem farther from the truth. Yom Kippur is when we deny our bodies the physical necessities and try to elevate ourselves to the level of the angels, while Purim seems almost the exact opposite - an apparent celebration of the body. Further, Yom Kippur, in the Temple, was the day when Hashem's presence was most felt, for this was when the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) entered the Holy of Holies, the nation would witness a red string miraculously turn white to signify their atonement, and the Cherubim were revealed to show the status of Hashem's relationship with His people. Purim, on the other hand, seems to signify the opposite, as Hashem's name is not even mentioned in the entire Book of Esther. Lastly, even granting the possibility of comparing the two holidays, can one seriously claim that Purim is the greater of the two?

(Hint: Both on Yom Kippur and Purim we strip away the external inhibitions placed on our souls to try and concentrate on those things that are larger than ourselves. On Yom Kippur we do so by denying the physical elements of our bodies to connect with Hashem; on Purim we get drunk, denying our self-image and presumptuous self-dignity.)

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"Moses' greatest act?"

When one thinks of the time that the Jewish people spent in the desert, the breaking of the tablets of the Ten Commandments is certainly viewed as a tragedy. The tablets were the greatest gift G-d had ever given to Mankind. Now, a single individual took this gift and, in what seems like a fit of anger, smashed it. After the revelation at Mt. Sinai, one can hardly imagine the terror that grasped the people upon seeing this. The word of Hashem was broken into little shards before their eyes. The Torah even goes out of its way to describe the divinity of the tablets (see Exodus 32:15-16), and now they were just broken stones. One is forced to ask, what right did Moses have to take this work of G-d and to destroy it?

Before answering this, however, we must appreciate that G-d's reaction to this, as portrayed by the sages, was radically different than we would have expected. Rashi's final comment on the Torah focuses on this issue. The Torah concludes by listing the great acts that Moses did "before the eyes of Israel." Rashi says that the particular act done "before the eyes of Israel" was the breaking of the tablets. Rashi continues to cite the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 87a) which claims that G-d actually said to Moses: "Yiyasher kochacha" (commonly mispronounced as "Yasher Ko'ach") - well done, for destroying the tablets!! Two questions arise on this comment of Rashi. Firstly, why does G-d give Moses a "Yasher Ko'ach" for destroying the most profound gift ever given to Man? Secondly, why does Rashi see this as the pinnacle of Moses' career, the act that epitomizes everything he did before the Jewish people?

(One possible direction: In considering this question we should keep in mind the failings of the Jews in their search for a physical object (the golden calf) around which to celebrate or even worship. How could the tablets have continued this failing? Perhaps this was the profound lesson and even fear of Moses - even the tablets could be misconstrued in the worship of G-d. Does the second set of tablets address any of these issues?)

This week's Think Tank was written by Chaim Saiman's chavrutah (study partner) Aytan Kadden, who incidentally has many relatives in Atlanta.


"Creating" Shabbat

The Torah portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei often strike the reader as a tedious redescription of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), something we thought we'd left behind us already. The sages, however, found in the Torah's careful description the source for all of the 39 melachot, or categories of work forbidden on Shabbat. Rashi (commenting on Talmud Tractate Chagigah 10b) draws the literary connection between the two, noting that before Moses describes the creation of the Mishkan to the Children of Israel at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, he delivers a brief lesson on the prohibitions of Shabbat. As one studies the laws of Shabbat, one cannot help but notice the efforts taken in the Talmud and beyond to constantly retain at the very least a theoretical connection to the Mishkan. Why is it that the Mishkan is the source for the laws of Shabbat?

One of the criterion outlined by the sages in order to transgress the Torah prohibition of work on Shabbat is that of "m'lechet machshevet - creative labor". The act done must produce something which did not previously exist. Certainly, Shabbat celebrates the greatest act of creation, that of the world and Mankind. The Mishkan, too, holds within it the great creative capacity of Man. What were the Jewish people creating in building the Mishkan? What might this tell us about the relationship between G-d's creativity and that of Mankind? Does this clue us in as to why the laws of Shabbat are derived from the Mishkan? Lastly, consider the law cited in the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel by Rashi: Based on the juxtaposition of the verses relating the mitzvot of Shabbat observance and the construction of the Mishkan, the sages derived that one may not construct the Mishkan on Shabbat. How does this law reflect on the ideas of Divine and human creativity discussed above? (For further thought: Consider the listing of the 39 acts prohibited on Shabbat found in the Mishnah Tractate Shabbat 7:2. Does this listing reflect considerations other than that of the Mishkan and the ideas above? What groupings can be found in this listing? How do these groupings relate to the concept of creativity?)

This week's Think Tank was written by Chaim Saiman's chavrutah (study partner) Aytan Kadden, who incidentally has many relatives in Atlanta.


"The new laws"

This week's Torah portion introduces us to one of at least four unique passages throughout the Torah's narrative in which the initiative of a person or group of people resulted in G-d's teaching the details of a particular mitzvah. The section of Pesach Sheni (Numbers 9:6-14) recounts how those people who were unable to bring the korban Pesach (Paschal lamb) at its normal time complained to Moses that they did not want to lose the opportunity to perform this special mitzvah. This prompted G-d to teach Moses about Pesach Sheni (the second Passover), a make-up day one month later on which they could offer the korban Pesach.

Three other sections of a similar vein involve the question of what to do with the "mekoshesh" who desecrated Shabbat (ibid. 15:32-36), the claim of the daughters of Tzlaphchad regarding a woman's ability to inherit property in lieu of a male heir (ibid. 27:1-11), and how to punish the man who cursed G-d's name (Leviticus 24:10-23). The common thread running between these narratives is that Hashem proclaims new laws as a direct response to specific events that occurred with the Jewish people in the desert.

One of the interesting questions that these passages present is what was/would be the status of these laws had the events that triggered them not have transpired. Were these laws instructed at Mt. Sinai, and Hashem commanded Moses to wait to reveal them to the nation until the appropriate time? Or did Moses forget these laws and have to be reminded of them when they became necessary? Would these laws have been stated in a different form had these event not happened? Are they meant for all future generations, or merely to instruct the generation of the desert? Alternatively, perhaps these laws were originally intended to be part of the vast Oral Torah, yet the circumstances required their inclusion in the Written Torah.

Note: All of these possibilities are raised by the commentators regarding at least one of the passages in question. Should a uniform explanation be sought or should each case be dealt with individually?

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Chaim Saiman, a native Atlantan and editor of Ale Etzion, is studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel.

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