- In this issue:
- Parsha Perspectives
- Word of the Week
- Hey, I Never Knew That
- Table Talk
- A Question for the Rabbis
- Parsha Summary
- Post/View Parsha Comments
Unraveling Social Policy
By Rabbi Leiby Burnham
לא תכלה פאת שדך בקצרך ולקט קצירך לא תלקט לעני ולגר תעזב אתם אני ה’ אלקיכם
“You shall not remove completely the corners of your field as you reap, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest. For the poor and the proselyte shall you leave them…” (Leviticus 23:22).
When detailing the laws of the festivals, immediately after the laws of Shavuos the Torah inserts laws of leket and peah, which instruct us to leave over different parts of our harvest for the poor. How do these laws fit into this Torah portion?
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah) explains that we are being taught an important fundament of the Torah, which was given on Shavuos. The Torah is not just a set of laws instructing mankind how to interact with G-d, a set of strictures and rules for human communication with the Divine. The Torah is an entire system of moral living, and as such contains the formula that synergizes optimal relationships with our fellow humans and with G-d.
To emphasize this idea, the Torah places moral precepts dealing with kindness and charity right next to the laws discussing Shavuos, when we received the Torah. Today, charity is such an ingrained value that people have a hard time linking it to the Torah. However, most societies in the pre-Torah world were not charitable, and the idea of people tithing their crops or leaving over an entire corner of their fields was as foreign to them as the idea of not eating milk and meat together or keeping Shabbat.
In a class on the history of social policy I once took, the professor explained that the first recorded social policy in which people took responsibility for the poor was the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. I didn’t argue with my professor that first day, but I remember scrolling mentally through the dozens of laws in the Torah (circa 1312 BCE) that put responsibility for the poor, the widow, and the orphan onto the rest of society. This same Torah that sets the foundation for social welfare also contains the laws of kashrut and teaches us to respect the wise man over the strong man. Indeed the mark of the greatest Torah scholars is not only their brilliant minds but their great sensitivity to the needs of others.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik exemplified this. While known for his magnum opus, the Beis Halevi, a work still studied widely today, the stories of his kindness are even more legendary. During the busy pre-Passover season, as dozens of people streamed through his house asking him questions, a local widow asked if she could use milk (instead of wine) for her four cups at the Seder. Although the question had a simple answer, Rabbi Soloveitchik appeared to give it serious thought, so as not to embarrass the woman for asking such a simple question. Then he answered her that one could not use milk to fulfill the mitzvah of the four cups.
After the woman left, Rabbi Soloveitchik instructed one of the members of his household to purchase all of the woman’s Passover necessities—wine, meat, matzah, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables—and discreetly place them outside the woman’s door. When asked the reason for this unusual errand, Rabbi Soloveitchik answered, “If she is coming to ask me whether she can use milk for the Seder, it is clear that she can’t even afford four cups of wine, let alone all the other needs for Passover!”
This exemplifies the Torah’s perfect blend of spirituality and humanity.
Word of the Week
By Rabbi Mordechai Becher
“The eighth day is a sacred holiday to you… it is an עצרת—atzeret, for you, no manner of work shall be done” (Leviticus 23:36). Rashi translates atzeret as “staying on” in the presence of G-d after the seven days of Sukkot, related to עצור—atzor—stop. Others translate is as “hold back” or “refrain” from work (Rabbi David Kimchi, Sefer Shorashim). Targum Onkelos uses the words מא(ע)רעי קדיש meaning a “holy convocation, or festival” (Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud).
Hey, I Never Knew That
By Rabbi Mordechai Becher
“G-d said to Moses, Tell the Kohanim, Sons of Aaron, and say to them, ‘You shall not defile yourselves for a soul’ ” (Leviticus 21:1). Some interpret this verse as two statements that Moses is to tell the Kohanim. The first is “Sons of Aaron”—that is, “realize that you are not just priests, but sons of Aaron, who loved peace, pursued peace and brought people close to Torah (Mishnah, Avot 1:12) and so you must do the same.” The second statement is “do not defile yourselves”—that is, “In the pursuit of peace and in reaching out to people, do not compromise your standards of Torah and do not compromise your morality.” So the message of the verse is: Be like sons of Aaron, but don’t sully yourselves in the process (heard from Rabbi Isaac Bernstein).
The Torah portion this week describes numerous laws that apply only to the kohanim (plural of kohein—priest). The Torah says that these laws make the kohanim “holy unto their G-d, and not profane the name of their God” (Leviticus 21:6).
- The Torah commands the kohanim to be Holy to G-d and not to desecrate His name. Yet in the verses immediately following this, the Torah enumerates things forbidden to a kohein, such as marrying a profaned woman. Why does the Torah begin by commanding the kohanim to reach tremendous levels of piety and holiness, only to immediately warn them against sinking to the lowest levels fathomable?
- Kohanim with certain physical blemishes were not allowed to perform the service in the Temple (21:17,18). The Torah, the source of all Jewish values, has numerous laws which prohibit insensitivity towards others, despite any physical, material, or spiritual shortcomings they may have. Appearance, from the Torah’s perspective, is surely insignificant, especially when compared to character. Why, then, would the Torah exclude a perfectly decent kohein from performing the service simply because of a physical (seemingly superficial) physical blemish?
A Question for the Rabbis
By: Rabbi Mordechai Becher
“And you shall sanctify him [the Kohein]…” (Leviticus 21:8). The Talmud (Gittin 59b) understands from this verse that one should honor a Kohein, and he should be called up to the Torah first, take food first, and in general be given preferential treatment. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein addresses the issue of whether the honor of a kohein would precede the honor of a Torah scholar. He responds that in honoring the kohein we are really giving honor to the institution of priesthood and to the tribe of the kohanim, descendants of Aaron. Inasmuch as that is so, since the ancestors of the kohein being honored include great scholars, and many without doubt greater than any living scholar, by honoring the kohein we are honoring all his ancestors as well, therefore we would not push aside that honor for the honor of a scholar (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:34).
Animals offered as sacrifices had to be free of blemishes. No animal could be offered before it turning eight days old, nor could a young animal be slaughtered on the same day as its mother. Violating these laws constitutes a desecration of G-d’s name, and controverts the purpose for which G-d took us out of Egypt. We are forbidden from desecrating G-d’s name, and on occasion must sacrifice our lives rather than transgress certain cardinal sins.
The parsha singles out Shabbat as the day of rest. It then lists all of the holidays and describes how they are to be observed.
- In Nissan, we celebrate Passover, when we dispose of chametz and eat matzah.
- On the second day of the holiday, the Omer offering was brought in the Temple, permitting everyone to make use of the new grain.
- Seven full weeks are counted until Shavuos, when two breads from the new wheat harvest are offered. Warnings are repeated not to forget the poor and the convert during our holiday celebrations.
- On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar.
- On Yom Kippur, a day of forgiveness, all eating and drinking is forbidden, and other restrictions also apply.
- On Sukkos, there is a mitzvah of carrying the lulav and esrog. We temporarily live in sukkot to remind us of G-d’s constant watchful care over us.
- Shemini Atzeres, the day on which we begin praying for rain to fall in the land of Israel, completes the holiday calendar.
All of the holidays are marked by restricted weekday activities, Temple sacrifices, and abundant joy.