Chumash Musings

Holy Money

What could be more mundane than money? It is merely a convenient method of accomplishing everyday tasks. Yet the Torah calls it holy, implying one of two dueling concepts of sanctity. The method with which Moshe conducted the desert census was having each person contribute half a shekel and then counting the resulting donations. The currency used is specifically called shekel ha-kodesh, a sacred coin (Ex. 30:13). What is sacred about this money? Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:8) explains that Hebrew is called lashon ha-kodesh, a sacred language, because it contains no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts nor for the acts that lead to conception of a child. Nor does it have precise terms for emissions and excretions. Rather, other terms are used euphemistically when the Hebrew user needs to refer to such concepts. The language itself lacks such crude terms and that–its purity–is why it is called the holy language. Similarly, presumably, the shekel coin was called holy because it was refined from all impurities. Lacking any flaw, the coin is pure and can be accurately called kodesh. Similarly,

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Responding to God

The surprising placement of the command to build an incense altar teaches how to properly apprehend and respond to God’s presence. Is a feeling of divine immanence unique to Israel’s holy places or can we find Him wherever we are in the world? A debate over an aspect of the mishkan (tabernacle) opens a window into a Medieval philosophical debate on this crucial issue. The details of building the mishkan is described in Parashas Terumah (Ex. 25-27:19). Subsequently the priestly garments and priestly inauguration are described in Parashas Tetzaveh (Ex. 27:20-29:46). After all that, we return to describe the incense altar in the mishkan (Ex. 30:1-10). Shouldn’t this passage appear in the prior Torah portion?

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Cut Stone

Three possible reasons are offered for the Torah’s prohibition of making an altar with cut stones (Ex. 20:25). You may only use stones that have not been shaped by iron. Noting that the Torah used the word for sword, Rashi and Ramban (ad loc.) follow the Sages (Mekhilta, ad loc.) in explaining that metal, and swords in particular, are used ...

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More Than Just God’s Name

You expect members of an enslaved nation to ask many questions before agreeing to rebel against their masters. However, asking the name of their proposed redeemer’s deity seems only marginally relevant, a low priority considering the logistical issues they face. Yet Moshe, before asking how to prove his ability to redeem the Jews from Egypt, asks what name to call God when the people ask. God’s answer is: “I will be what I will be” (Ex. 3:15). This is hardly a simple answer to a straightforward, if unusual, question. Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:63) sees in this exchange a more profound exercise. Except for the Levites, the Jews in Egypt adopted the local idolatries (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 1:3). Before accepting that Moshe was God’s messenger, they first had to be convinced that God exists. Following R. Sa’adiah Gaon, Rambam explains that God gave Moshe a three-word proof for God’s existence. A Necessary Being must exist eternally.

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Angels and Afterlife

The Torah speaks explicitly about angels but gives little detail about these supernatural creatures. A debate about these biblical narratives reflects not only different understandings about the nature of angels but also about other crucial concepts. According to Jewish tradition, Avraham is visited by three angels (Gen. 18:1). Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:42; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:3-4) writes that any time the Bible speaks of people seeing angels, it occurs in a vision. Angels are incorporeal and cannot be seen. Therefore, the Torah begins by saying generally that God revealed Himself to Avraham and then gave details about the content of that prophetic vision, i.e. the three angels visiting.

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The Right Side of History

Should we ask why bad things happen to bad people? Pharaoh and the Egyptians fulfilled God’s prophecy to Avraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land (Gen. 15:13). Why, then, were the Egyptians punished? Ramban’s answer to this question reflects a broader opinion of his that is much-criticized but under-appreciated. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:5) answers that while God’s plan includes people enslaving Jews, it does not specify who will serve this evil role. Every individual has the choice of doing good or bad and receiving appropriate recompense. The Egyptians chose to enslave the Jews rather than allowing another nation to do so. Therefore, they deserved punishment.

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What is Kares?

At the end of his commentary to the first of this week’s double-portion, the Ramban has a long discussion of what the punishment of kares, generally translated as excision, means. “For whoever does any of these abominations, even the souls who do them will be cut off from among their people” (Lev. 18:29). To move this discussion further by a ...

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Sins of Fathers

Lev. 26:39: והנשארים בכם ימקו בעונם בארצת איביכם; ואף בעונת אבתם אתם ימקו And those of you who are left shall waste away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands; also in their fathers’ iniquities, which are with them, they shall waste away. Regarding the second half of the verse, Rashi quotes the Sifra that asks how a person can ...

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An Eye For An Eye

R. Avraham Sar Shalom: The last verses in the weekly Torah portion, Parshat Emor, deal with the punishment given to a person who physically harms another person (and his property). There is one verse in particular amongst all the verses in which our commentators have invested a greatdeal of effort. “… An eye for an eye …” (Vayikra [Leviticus] 24, ...

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