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Torah Sparks

MAY 9, 2009 – 15 Iyar 5769

Annual: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Triennial: Leviticus 22:17 – 23:22 (Etz Hayim p. 722; Hertz p. 517)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15 – 31 (Etz Hayim p. 735; Hertz p. 528)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses to teach the priests the laws that apply to their special status. No kohen may come into contact with a dead body, the principal source of ritual impurity, other than members of his immediate family - parents, children, or siblings (the rabbis included his wife). They were not to shave their heads or make gashes in their skin as expressions of mourning. A kohen may not marry a harlot or a divorcee. Additional prohibitions apply to the High Priest, who may not come into contact with any dead body, even immediate family, or marry a widow. No kohen with a physical defect may offer sacrifices, but he still was permitted to eat the portions of the sacrifices set aside for the priests. A priest who is ritually impure may not eat from these sacrifices. Only priests and members of their households - excluding hired workers and daughters married to husbands who are not priests - may eat the food offerings given to the priests.

Animals dedicated as sacrifices may not have any physical defect. An animal and its young may not be slaughtered on the same day.

God instructs Moses to teach the people about Shabbat and the festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The priests are to light the lamps in the sanctuary and to prepare twelve loaves of bread to be displayed in the sanctuary each week.

A man who was the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father committed blasphemy and was brought to Moses. God tells Moses that the blasphemer is to be executed by stoning.

1. To Sanctify - And Not Profane - God's Holy Name

You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people - I the Lord who sanctify you. (Leviticus 22:32)

  1. The meaning of this verse according to the opinion of our rabbis is that it constitutes a positive commandment, that we sanctify His Name by observing the commandments, and that [under certain circumstances] we submit to death rather than transgress them. (Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), 1194-1270, Spain)
  2. “You are My witnesses, declares the Lord... that I am He: Before Me no god was formed, and after Me none shall exist” (Isaiah 43:10). Said Shimon bar Yohai: If you are My witnesses that I am He, the first One; neither shall any be after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God. (Pesikta DeRav Kahana)
  3. The sanctity the Torah advocates is not religious but moral. If a person lives a life of righteousness and integrity, in love and humility, so that all who see will praise this person and want to follow the same path - such a person is one who sanctifies God’s name. A person like that is a sort of lighthouse for all those who have trouble finding the right path in the sea of life. The image of such a person illuminates and warms everyone who is in the vicinity. (Simcha Raz, The Torah’s Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, pp. 220-221)
  4. “You shall love the Lord your God...” implying that the name of Heaven should become beloved through you; that a person should read and study Torah, minister to Torah scholars, speak kindly to his fellow creatures, and be honest and honorable in his business and other dealings. What do people say of such a person? Happy his father who taught him Torah, happy his teacher who has taught him Torah, woe to those who have not studied Torah! See so-and-so who has studied Torah, how pleasant is his manner and how upright his deeds... But when a person who studies Torah and ministers to Torah scholars is not distinguished for his kindly way and honest dealings - what do people say about him? See so-and-so who has learned Torah - woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who has taught him Torah, happy are those who have not studied Torah! See so-and-so who has studied Torah, how evil are his deeds, how corrupt are his ways! (Yoma 86a)
  5. He who steals from a non-Jew is bound to make restitution to the non-Jew; it is worse to steal from a non-Jew than to steal from an Israelite because of the hillul HaShem. (Tosefta Bava Kamma 10:15)
  6. Rabbi Ilai said: If a person sees that his evil inclination [in this case, sexual lust] is overpowering him, let him go to a place where no one knows him and put on black clothes and wrap himself in black and do what his heart desires, but let him not desecrate the Name of Heaven publicly. (Moed Katan 17a)

Sparks for Discussion

Most people are familiar with the term kiddush HaShem (sanctification of the Name) in the context of martyrdom – a martyr dies al kiddush HaShem. But the greater challenge may be living al kiddush HaShem and avoiding its opposite, hillul HaShem (profanation of the Name). Do you think that the behavior of individual Jews reflects on Judaism, the Jewish people, even God? Does this apply to all Jews or only to those who are known to be “religious”? Are good behavior and bad behavior equally persuasive, or do people notice one more than the other? How might you apply these concepts to recent news stories about Rubashkin, Bernie Madoff, and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza? What point is Rabbi Ilai making? Do you think he condones the behavior he describes? Can you think of examples of kiddush HaShem or hillul HaShem that you have seen or read about in your community?

2. From Exodus to Revelation

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering - the day after the sabbath - you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week - fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

  1. The period between Pesach and Shavuot is called Sefirah (counting). The name is derived from the practice of counting the Omer, which is observed from the night of the second seder of Pesach until the eve of Shavuot. The Sefirah period is a time of sadness. According to the Talmud, this is because twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died one year between Pesach and Shavuot (Yevamot 62b)... Some associate the somberness of these days with an even earlier period of Jewish history. The fruits of the field ripen during the time encompassed by Sefirah, and it is, therefore, a period of uncertainty - of hope and prayer that our physical sustenance will be continued in abundance... (Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 142)
  2. Israel is indissolubly bound up with the Torah, and for the sake of the Torah the heavens and earth and Israel were created... This is the principle and reason governing their redemption and departure from Egypt to receive the Torah on Sinai and observe it... This was the great principle for which they were redeemed, their greatest good, and a matter of far more importance to them than the freedom from bondage. Because of this we were commanded to count from the second day of Pesach to the day of the giving of the Torah, to give expression to our deepest and innermost yearnings for the arrival of this day... (Sefer HaHinukh (attributed to Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, 13th century, Spain))
  3. Why did the Torah establish that the date of the holiday of Shavuot would depend on counting, which is not the case for all the other holidays? Because when it was announced to Israel that they were to leave Egypt, it was also made known that they were destined to receive the Torah at the end of fifty days after their exodus, as it is said, “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Shemot 3:12). And because of their great love, Israel would count each and every day and say, “Behold, one day has passed,” and two days and so on. Because it appeared to them to be a long time due to their great love for this event, the practice of counting was fixed for the generations. (Midrash cited in “Torah Sheleimah,” Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher)

Sparks for Discussion

The practice of counting the omer inextricably links Pesach and Shavuot, exodus and revelation. Why? How would the author of the midrash or Sefer HaHinukh understand the Feast of Freedom? Do you think most American Jews make this connection when they celebrate Pesach? Rabbi Klein notes that Sefirah is a time of uncertainty. It is easy to see why that is true in an agricultural society - could it apply in other areas as well?

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