The Fire Within the Bush

“Dirshu Hashem behimatz’o — seek G-d when He can be found, qara’uhu bihyoso qarov — call Him when He is near.””Shuvu eilai, veashuva aleikhem — Return to Me and I will return to you.”Contrasting images. The first is one of G-d initiating the repentance process, and man responding after Hashem has first made Himself available. The second is G-d’s cry for us to initiate, and then He will respond. A relationship is cyclic, feeding back upon itself. There is no clear initial point; each step gradually deepens the bond.

In Unsaneh Toqef, we find the following as part of the description of what the high holidays are like in heaven. “And a great shofar will be blown, and a small still voice will be heard, and the angels will be atremble, and panic and fear will grip them, and they will cry ‘Here is the day of judgment!'” The “small still voice”, the “qol demamah daqah” is a quote from Melachim I, from a lesson Hashem teaches Eliyahu hanavi. First the prophet is buffeted by a powerful wind, and G-d says, “I Am not in the wind”, then he hears a loud crash, “I Am not in the crash”, then a fire, and G-d says that He is neither there. Then “a small thin voice”. What sets the angels in panic? Not the great and mighty shofar, but the response within the human soul. What forces them to proclaim the day of judgment? Not the clarion call announcing that now is “He can be found”, but the person seeking Him, returning to G-d so that He will return to them.

Moshe rabbeinu’s first recorded prophecy, his sight of the burning bush, has a similar lesson.

2: And Hashem’s angel appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, here! the bush burned with fire bo’eir ba’eish, and the bush was not consumed.3: And Moshe said, “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, madu’ah lo yiv’ar haseneh — why the bush does not burn.”

4: And when Hashem saw that he turned to look, Hashem called him out of the midst of the bush, and said: “Moshe, Moshe!” And he said: “Here I am.”

In pasuq 2, a mal’akh appears to Moshe, and the bush is bo’eir ba’eish. However, Moshe turns aside from that vision. He turned to see that lo yiv’ar hanseh — no, it’s not really burning. There is a fire within the bush, only at the core. The mal’akh speaks mitoch, from within the bush. The truer revelation that Moshe rabbeinu saw beyond the angel was one if tzimtzum, Divine Constriction. When Moshe realizes this, the nevu’ah is elevated from a prophet’s speech to an angel to Moshe’s unique ability to speak “face to ‘Face'” with G-d. Moshe merited this nevu’ah because he was “anav mikol adam — more modest than any other man.” His anivus is a reflection and imitation of that very tzimtzum, which is how Moshe alone would turn to take another look.

The mal’akh appeared in the big, the flashy. The first glance made it seem that the whole bush was aflame. It’s like the shofar gadol blowing, announcing Hashem’s presence. The angel declared behimatz’o — here and now Hashem could be found. But Moshe’s response one to the qol demamah dakah, he saw Hashem limiting his presence to allow for a response, to demand derashah — seeking Him out. Realizing that you must respond, that you aren’t simply entitled, that is anivus. And therefore Moshe connected to the A-lmighty in a way no one else did before or since.

Some thoughts about Parashas Yisro

There is a difference in how Moshe Rabbeinu’s sons are named. Shemos 18:3-4:

And her two sons; that the name of one was “Geirshom” because he said “I was a geir (foreigner) in a strange land.” And the name of one was “Eliezer” because E-lokei Avi (the G-d of my father) was be’ezri (at my aid), and He saved me from the sword of Par’oh.

Notice that in the naming of Geirshom, there is mention of what Moshe said, however in the nammming of Eliezer, there is no such mention. But also notice that the “ki” comes before the “amar”, in other words, the reason for the naming is because of what Moshe said, not that Moshe gave the reason in his declaration.

There is a question addressed by rishonim: Why is the older one named for the exile, whereas the second son is named for something that happened earlier, before he was forced away from Mitzrayim? Shouldn’t they have been named in chronological order? One answer is that in those times (as we see in the naming of Yitchaq, Yaaqov and Yaaqov sons) naming normally fell to the mother. Tzipporah got the right of naming the firstborn, and she opened by thanking G-d for the events that brought Mosheh to her — his exile from Egypt. Then Moshe named Eliezer. (This is the origin of the custom in many Ashkenazic communities of alternating who names the children, started with the mother naming the firstborn.)

If I may use this idea to explain the distinction I made earlier… Tzipporah named Geirshom not because Mosheh was exiled, but because Mosheh said he was exiled. To her, it was not exile from Egypt but coming to Midan, finding his mate, teaching monotheism. However, Geirshom was named for the distress Mosheh felt at being separated from his people. He was named for what Mosheh said, his perception.

Why did Yisro decide to come to Mosheh and the Jews in the Midbar? The parashah opens “Vayishma Yisro” (and Yisro heard). The gemara (Zevachim 116a, quoted by Rashi) explains that Yisro heard about the crossing of the Yam Suf and the attack of Amaleiq.But when Yisro finally has a chance to talk to Mosheh, what does Mosheh tell him about? In Shemos 18:8 Moshe tells Yisro about “kol hatela’ah”, all the tribulations, that the Jews underwent. Which Rashi quotes the Mechilta explaining refers to Yam Suf and Amaleiq?

Why did Moshe tell Yisro about the two things Yisro knew already?

There is critical value to repetition. We say in Shema “and you will know today, and you will answer onto your heart.” The Sefas Emes explains, you can know something with your mind, and yet not internalize it in your heart. To internalize it, you must place it on your heart, even though it doesn’t get in. Eventually, it will break through.

This repetition to produce a change of heart is central to Mussar. The means of changing a middah is first qibbush hayeitzer, conquering it. By repeatedly resisting a desire, one can reach tiqun hayeitzer, the point at which it’s repaired.

One of Mussar’s key tools is the idea of making a qabbalah, accepting upon yourself an activity that slowly, incrementally, whittles away at a problem or builds up a strength. Through repetition of the qabbalah one can change the emotions.

Another tool is hispa’alus, studying or davening with “lips aflame”. Each time one learns about a middah with hispa’alus it makes an emotional impression. However, it’s slow an incremental. It will take many days of work to actually change a middah.

The difference between Yisro’s initial hearing about Yam Suf and the attack of Amaleiq and Moshe’s repetition is in the words “kol hatela’ah“. Repeated, it took on emotional content. Yisro no longer heard stories, he heard about trevails.

“VeHar Sinai ashan kulo” (Shemos 19:18). Rashi points out that the word “ashan“, with two patachs for vowels, is a verb. The normal assumption is that the phrase means “And Har Sinai was entirely giving out smoke.” However, there was a heavy cloud on the mountain (v 16), what would be the point of smoke too above it?Perhaps, and I stress that “perhaps”, it should be rendered “and all of Har Sinai turned into smoke”? That the mountain lost its solidity when Hashem was upon it?

There are three prohibitions stressed in the laws of making a mizbei’ach given at the end of this week’s parashah. “Gods of silver and gods of gold do not make for yourself. A mizbei’ach of earth shall you make for Me…” (Shemos 20:19-20) “And if a mizbei’ach of stone you shall make for Me, do not them hewn; because your sword you placed upon it and profaned it.” (v. 21) “Do not go up steps onto my mizbei’ach, that you shall not reveal your nakedness on it.” (v. 22)Three prohibitions: (1) not making idols for the altar; (2) not using a sword, a tool of war, to make it; and (3) not using steps because of a lack of tzeni’us, that it calls ervah. These are the three sins that one must violate even at risk to one’s own life — idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality.

According to the Ramban, a message of the mizbei’ach is that the person sees the death of the animal and responds “That death should have been mine; it was I who forfeited my right to exist.” Therefore, in building the mizbei’ach, the means of re-earning the right to exist, the three prohibitions that override life are doubly inappropriate.

Terumah – The Legs of the Aron

In describing the design of the aron, the Torah says:

וְיָצַ֣קְתָּ לּ֗וֹ אַרְבַּע֙ טַבְּעֹ֣ת זָהָ֔ב וְנָ֣תַתָּ֔ה עַ֖ל אַרְבַּ֣ע פַּֽעֲמֹתָ֑יו וּשְׁתֵּ֣י טַבָּעֹ֗ת עַל־צַלְעוֹ֙ הָֽאֶחָ֔ת וּשְׁתֵּי֙ טַבָּעֹ֔ת עַל־צַלְע֖וֹ הַשֵּׁנִֽית׃

And you should cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four pa’amos; and two rings shall be on its one side, and two rings on its other side.

Shemos 25:12

The word “pa’amosav” is difficult to translate. Rashi, following Unqelus, renders it “corners”. But the Ibn Ezra and Chiquni note that the word is never otherwise used to mean corners. They each cite

תִּרְמְסֶ֖נָּה רָ֑גֶל רַגְלֵ֥י עָנִ֖י פַּֽעֲמֵ֥י דַלִּֽים׃ -ישע’ כו:ו
צֶ֭דֶק לְפָנָ֣יו יְהַלֵּ֑ךְ וְיָשֵׂ֖ם לְדֶ֣רֶךְ פְּעָמָֽיו׃ –תה’ פה:יד
מַה־יָּפ֧וּ פְעָמַ֛יִךְ בַּנְּעָלִ֖ים בַּת־נָדִ֑יב חַמּוּקֵ֣י יְרֵכַ֔יִךְ כְּמ֣וֹ חֲלָאִ֔ים מַֽעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֥י אָמָּֽן׃ –שה״ש ז:ב

In these and many other cases, the word pa’am is used to mean leg. In Yeshaiah, it is paralleled with “regel“, in Tehillim, it is something with which one walks, and in Shir haShirim, it wears shoes.

On Friday night, Rav Aharon Cohen’s devar Torah was based on a seifer called Areshes Sefaseinu. He asks why the pasuq would use the word “pa’amosav” rather than the far more common “raglav”?

Angels are stationary, which is why the prophet describes them as “standing upon one regel“. See the idea in greater depth in this post on the travels of parashas Mas’ei. Regel connotes the ability to stand, stability. Tables have raglayim.

We see from the pasuq in Tehillim that the Ibn Ezra uses, “and he will place his feet on the path”, that pa’amos has a greater connotation of legs as a means of motion. This is more like the nature of people than of angels. People move, we progress. (I also discuss the difference in the essay “People and Angels“. And in this article for Mesukim MiDevash, I try to relate them to the placement of the instruments in the Mishkan.)

The aron‘s role in the Miskan parallels that of the soul in the body. Therefore, the Areshas Sefaseinu suggests, it has pa’amos, not raglayim.

I was thinking about the etymology of the words. Regel also connotes regilus, regularity, and hergel, habit. It is looking at the repetitious rhythm of walking. A pa’am is a time, a notable event.

What causes stagnation? When one looks only at the mechanics of the mitzvos, following them out of habit or culture. To grow as people, each performance must be done with
intent for forward motion, to concentrate on this particular encounter with G-d as an event.


Someone showed me the following idea in the Be’er Yoseif by Rav Yoseif Tzevi Salant.

וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱ-לֹהִ֧ים ׀ אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַֽחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

– שמות יג:יח

ואסחר ה’ ית עמא אורח מדברא לימא דסוף ומזרזין סליקו בני ישראל מארעא דמצרים:

– תרגום אונקלות, שם

… בעבדא טבא …

– תרגום ירושלמי, שם

ואחזר ה’ ית עמא אורח מדברא דימא דסוף וכל חד עם חמשא טפלין סליקו בני ישראל מארעא דמצרים:

– תרגום יונתן

Hashem brought the nation around, via the path of the desert, the Red Sea; and the Children of Israel arose chamushim (to be defined) from the Land of Egypt.

Shemos 13:8

.. and the Jews departed prepared and with haste from the Land of Egypt.

– Targum Unqelus (ad loc)

… with good deeds…

– Jerusalem Targum (ad loc)

… and the Jews departed with five infants from the Land of Egypt.

– Targum Yonasan (ad loc)

Rashi defines “chamushim as “armed”, which underlies the Targumim of Unqelus and Yerushalmi. Armed in a spiritual sense, prepared with good deeds.

The medrash describing the Egypt experience told us that we had six children at a time. Here, how can the Targum Yonasan mean that every Jew left with five children, as though this is something that should impress us? The Be’er Yoseif therefore believes the naive read of the Targum Yonasan is correct. Instead, the Be’er Yoseif explains all these targumim in light of each other.

Four fifths of the Jewish people died in Egyptm during the plague of darkness. These were the people who didn’t merit redemption; those who believed in the Egyptian paganism and wanted to stay. But what about their children? The youth didn’t merit dying, even if they agreed with their parents — they aren’t accountable or punishable for their crimes. The Be’er Yoseif notes that this means that each of the 600,000 men left Egypt had to have left with five families of children — his own, and those of four families left orphaned by this punishment. And this could be the intent of the Targum Yonasan.

This is also the “good deeds” of the Jerusalem Targum, the “zerizus” of the Targum Unqelus. They were prepared and surrounded by the mitzvah of taking in these children in need. Today we think of adoption as something someone does when they r”l can’t have children of their own. However, in light of this devar Torah, we see that this mitzvah played a central role in defining us as a people.

According to the Be’er Yosef, it is the merit of adopting orphans that rendered us ready for the redemption from Egypt!

Not for the Seder Table

We say in the Hagadah

אמר רבי אלעזר בן עזריה: הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה ולא זכיתי שתאמר יציאת מצרים בלילות, עד שדרשה בן זומא “למען תזכור את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך”: ימי חייך – הימים, כל ימי חייך – הלילות. וחכמים אומרים: ימי חייך – העולם הזה, כל ימי חייך – להביא לימות המשיח.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: Here I am like 70 years old, and I didn’t merit [having a proof] that the Exodus from Egypt must be spoken about at night. Until Ben Zomah expounded “So that you shall remember the day you went out of the Land of Egypt all the days of your life’. ‘The days of your life’ — would mean daytime, ‘All the days of your life’ — [adds] the nights.”
But the sages say: “The days of your life” — this world, “All the days of your life” — includes the messianic era.”

The topic under dispute is the nature of saying the last paragraph of Shema. According to Ben Zoma and R’ Elazar ben Azariah (REbA), the pasuq “… asher hotzeisi eskhem meiEretz Mitzrayim — Who took you out of the Land of Eqypt…” as a fulfillment of the biblical obligation to discuss the Exodus at night. According to the Chakhamim, the obligation is rabbinic.

I recently encountered a Yerushalmi that has a different dispute between REbA and the majority of the  Chakhamim that I think dovetails with this one. But, as the subject line says, it’s not on a topic appropriate for the seder table.

If after relations semen emits from the woman’s body (as is true for a man), the woman is temei’ah. In the days of the beis hamiqdash, when there are mitzvos that depend on her being tehorah, she would have to go to the miqvah. However, in order for this law to apply, the semen still has to be fresh (viable?), and therefore must be within three days of intimacy. This is deduced from the instructions given to the Jews at Mount Sinai: “וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-הָעָם, הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים, לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים;  אַל-תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל-אִשָּׁה — [Moshe] said to the people, ‘Be prepared for the third day, do not [sexually] approach a woman.'” (Shemos 19:15) Thus implying that three days is sufficient to guarantee that no woman would be temei’ah (at least, not more so than tevul yom).

There is a four-way machloqes in the Yerushalmi (Shabbos 9:3, Vilna 59b) about how to define those three days; the result of two open questions:

  1. When Moshe Rabbeinu said “third day”, is this because one needs three entire days, or is overlapping with part of the day sufficient?
  2. What do we mean by “days”? Three daylight units of time, with the two nights between them, or 3 24-hour cycles? In other words, is the time specified 5 onos, i.e. 12-hour units, or 6?

There are tannaim with each combination of answers:

  • Rabbi Yishmael says that the time must cover at least parts of 5 12-hour units. So, if they had relations just before sundown, that counts as the first onah, then the next two days are another 4 onos, and if she emits semen a few moments later it is during the 6th onah, and she is tehorah. Altogether the minimum amount of time is just over 2 days. However, if they had relations just after sunset, then the first onah is pretty much the entire night, and the emission might be toward the end of the 6th onah, meaning a total of just under 3 days.
  • Rabbi Aqivah also holds that the relevant unit is the onah, not the day, but holds one needs 5 complete onos. Therefore, time limit is always 5 x 12 = 60 hours after they had relations. Regardless of the time of day of the relations or the emission.
  • Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah holds that we need parts (not whole durations) of three 24-hour days (not 5 onos). Therefore, if they had relations shortly before nightfall that’s day one, then if a day passes beyond the next nightfall, that’s already part of the third day, and she would be tehorah. This is the most lenient opinion — the minimum is only just over 24 hours. The longest possible time would be just under 2 days.
  • Last, the sages are quoted as holding that one needs three complete days, meaning 3 x 24 = or 72 hours.

Note that both R’ Elazar ben Azariah and the Chakhamim consider the day and the night to be a single unit. When we speak of yom, by default we mean 24 hours.

How do they differ? REbA holds that something happening even on the edge of that day is enough to characterize the day. The Chakhamim hold that it must last the entire duration of the day.

Perhaps we can say the following:

According to Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Aqiva, the question of whether or not there is a Torahitic obligation to discuss the Exodus at night wouldn’t even arise. The verse telling us to speak of the Exodus says “yom“, which by default is the daylight onah.

However, between R’ Elazar ben Azariah and the Sages,  the point of dispute is whether something happening for a moment during the day is sufficient to characterize the day, or if the thing must last the entire day. According to REbA, then, there are two ways of understanding this obligation. Either as an utterance, an obligation that happens to occur daily, or as an obligation to make each day about remembering the Exodus.  If the latter, he would say that one utterance a day is sufficient, since an event during the day is part of the entire day’s character. Therefore, he is excited to learn from Ben Zoma that the obligation is twice daily. A mitzvah that is twice daily is simply a mitzvah whose schedule is twice daily, and not about characterizing the day as a whole.

The Chakhamim, however, say the mitzvah is to characterize the entire day. The mitzvah is thus once daily.



Purim and Ki Sisa

I have heard many derashos discussing the linkage between parashas Tetzaveh and Purim, which usually falls out around the week of Tetzaveh. Typically involving the discussion of the kohein‘s uniform in Tetzaveh and all the mentions of clothing in the megillah — people wearing their finest at the party, Esther’s change into royal clothes, sackcloth when the news of Haman’s plot came out, Mordechai being dress up in the king’s finery, etc… But there is an intriguing connection between Purim and this week’s parashah (Ki Sisa), one I feel is even tighter than with Tetzavah. In Ki Sisa, Moshe comes down from the mountain, confronts the sin of the eigel hazahav (Golden Calf) and shatters the first luchos. In the aftermath of the consequent punishment to the worshippers of the calf, HQBH and Moshe have a long exchange, including Moshe asking, “הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶךָ. — Please let me see Your Glory.” And Hashem replies:

וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל-טוּבִי עַל-פָּנֶיךָ, וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם ה לְפָנֶיךָ; וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן, וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם. וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי. וַיֹּאמֶר ה, הִנֵּה מָקוֹם אִתִּי; וְנִצַּבְתָּ, עַל-הַצּוּר. וְהָיָה בַּעֲבֹר כְּבֹדִי, וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר; וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ, עַד-עָבְרִי. וַהֲסִרֹתִי, אֶת-כַּפִּי, וְרָאִיתָ, אֶת-אֲחֹרָי; וּפָנַי, לֹא יֵרָאוּ.

And He said: I shall pass all My Goodness over your face and I will call out in the name “Hashem” [the name that connotes transcendence, creation and Divine Empathy] before you; and I will be Gracious to whomever I will be Gracious and I will show Empathy to whomever I will be Empathetic. And He said: You will not be able to see My “Face”, for no person can see Me and live. Hashem said: Here there is place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will be when I pass My Glory, I will place you in a crack in the rosk; and I will place My “Palms” upon you. And I will then remove My “Palms” and you will see My “Back”, but My “Face” will not be seen.

Shemos 33:19-22

Moshe is told that man cannot see G-d. We cannot understand why He shows his Graciousness or Empathy to this person or in this situation and not in another. We can only get a small glimpse, sometimes, “from the back”, with hindsight. This is the message of Purim. The one holiday in our calendar that commemorates Hashem acting through nature rather than defying it. The name “Esther” is associated with the Megillah not only because of its protagonist, but also because her name connotes “hesteir panim”, Hashem “placing His ‘Palms’ upon us and hiding His ‘Face'”. It is only after the events unfold that His plans were visible. Until then, it all looks like “purim – lots”. Also, because of this destruction, the giving of the Torah on Shavuos needed to be repeated. Moshe descended with the Second Luchos on Yom Kippur. And our second acceptance of the Torah isn’t complete until Purim itself. ” “‘קימו וקבלו היהודים — The Jews established and accepted’ (Esther 9:27) — – קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר (בבלי שבת פח ע”א — “They established that which they had already accepted.” (Shabos 88a). The first luchos were entirely made by Hashem. The second luchos were quarried by Moshe. The first luchos represented a world where Hashem would not be hidden. Our sin shifted us to a reality in which He hides by weaving His Plan into the outcomes of nature and human action. The world of Purim. The Torah calls the Day of Atonement “Yom haKippurim“, which the Tiqunei Zohar homiletically explains, “a day which is comparable to Purim”. This is a possible linkage between the days. Yom Kippur and Purim combine to address the loss of Torah caused by the cheit ha’eigel (the sin of the Goldan Calf).

A Messenger of…

I became convinced two disputes are related. I am not 100% sure of the nature of the relationship, but as it’s related to parashas Ki Sisa, I want to post what I have so far while it’s still this week’s parashah.

Machloqes #1: Do kohanim serve as sheluchei didan (our messengers), representing us in our service of the Creator? Or are they sheluchei diShmaya (messengers of [the One in] heaven), a conduit of His Message to the Jewish People?

This question is posed on Nedarim 35b. They raise a pragmatic difference. If a Jew swears off getting benefit from a given kohein, can the kohein offer his qorban for him? If the kohein is acting on the person’s behalf in giving the qorban, then this assistance would violate the oath. But if the kohein is acting on Hashem’s behalf in receiving the qorban, then he could perform this service. The discussion goes on for over a page, but without resolution.

Machloqes #2: This section of the Torah is understood two ways. The Ramban assumes the narrative is in chronological order. We receive the Torah, the laws of parshios MishpatimTerumah, and Tetzaveh at Har Sinai, and then after those laws but Moshe had not yet descended from the mountain, we make the Eigel haZahav (the Golden Calf).

Rashi writes that the sin actually occurred before Terumah and Tetzaveh, that we were commanded to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), uniforms for the kohanim etc… as a consequence of the sin. This is why the kohanim and leviim, the people who fought against the sin, are the ones chosen for service. Similarly, Chur dies resisting the masses’ pressing him into service to make the Eigel, and his son Betzalel is in charge of the Mishkan. Then there is the heavy use of gold, the bull — an adult calf — offered by Aharon, who does choose to make the Eigel rather than add his own death to their list of sins, show a process of atonement for the sin. The order of the text was thematic, not chronological.

The Overlap: The Eigel was intended as a replacement for Moshe, who wasn’t descending when they expected him to.

וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר, וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו: קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ, כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ.

And the nation saw that Moshe delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the nation gathered against Aharon and said to him, “Get up and make for us gods who will go before us; for this man Moshe who took us out of the land of Egypt — we don’t know what happened to him.”

— Shemos 32:1

Moshe is described as a sheliach diShamaya to His People, not our messenger. In Shemos ch. 4, when Hashem appoints Moshe at the Burning Bush, He says “va’eshlachakha el Par’oh — and I will send you to Par’oh” (v. 10), “vezeh lekha ha’os ki Anokhi shelachtikha — and will be for you a sign that I am sending you” (v. 12) Moshe asks “ve’amari lahem, ‘E-lokei avoseikhem shelachani aleikhem — and when I say to them ‘the G-d of your ancestors sent me to you” they will ask for Your Name. (v. 13) And Hashem answers Moshe that he tell them, “This is what you should tell the Benei Yisrael, E-hyeh sent me to you.” (v. 14)

So, if the people were already told that there would be a Mishkan and kohanim before feeling they had to make the Eigel to fill the vacuum they thought was left by Moshe, then they had to believe that Moshe’s role was inherently different than that the kohanim would fill.

So, if they correctly understood that Moshe was Hashem’s messenger, then they clearly thought that kohanim were sheluchei didan.

But there is strong reason to believe that this it was exactly their error — they did not correctly understand the role of Moshe, and thought he was their messenger. After all, some kind of misunderstanding the role of Moshe had to underlie the idea that a teacher could be replaced by a Golden Calf. And after all, we already saw that the Eigel was in response to an appeal to “make for us gods to go before us.” Which would imply that they understood the kohanim as sheluchei deShmaya.

On the other hand, according to Rashi’s model that the Mishkan came after the Eigel and atones for it, then the two rules would have to be the same. But unlike in the Ramban’s case, where all we can deduce is how people would panic based on what they think is going on, here what is most relevant is how Hashem saw their actions, and how their sin impacted existence metaphysically.

Here two there are two possibilities:

The first would say that according to Rashi, since Moshe was a sheleiach diShmaya, the Eigel impinged on that level, and the Mishkan and kohanim would have to be a repair on the same level as well. And so, it would seem to me that the kohanim would have to be sheluchei diShmaya.

The other possibility (paralleling the second possible understanding in the Ramban) is that their whole sin was in misunderstanding Moshe’s role. And so even though their actions belied the role of  Hashem’s messenger, they mistakenly thought their own messenger needed replacing, and they sinned in how to appoint their sheliach didan. And so Hashem shows them the right way to do it, by showing us how to make the kohanim into sheluchei didan.

So, two disputes, and all four combinations are possible. But the reasoning in each of the four cases involves both:

 Kohanim as Sheluchei DidanKohanim as Sheluchei DiShmaya
Ramban: Historical SequenceMoshe is correctly seen as Hashem’s messenger, and so even with kohanim they feel a need to place him.Their whole error was that they thought Moshe was their messenger, so finding out Hashem was appointing His own messenger didn’t help their panic
Rashi: Mishkan as AtonementMoshe is mistakenly seen as sheliach didan, which Hashem corrected by teaching us about the Mishkan and kohanim. and constructively channeling that need. The Benei Yisrael demonstrate their panic about Hashem’s messenger being dead by making an idol to invest with His replacement. Therefore Hashem offers atonement through His true shelichim, the kohanim.

I explored the link between the eigel and the keruvim (via the Egptian cult of Apis the bull-god, the religion Yerav’am established for the Northern Kingdom, and the Chaldean bull-god Kirub, as well as the bull or keruv face on the chayos in Yechezqel’s vision) a few years back in “Angels and Idols“.

An Altar of Earth

We just looked at the section on the mizbeiach as being more about the role of the religious rite in a life of Torah. We don’t offer qorbanos — or daven, or shake lulav and esrog or… —  to rertreat from the world and find solace with G-d, but as part of our engagement with the world, a life-long process of self-refinement.

There are two comments by Rashi on this section that each offer a pair of perspectives on the question they address:

כי מן השמים דברתי: וכתוב אחד אומר “וירד ה’ על הר סיני” בא הכתוב השלישי והכריע ביניהם (דברים ד) מן השמים השמיעך את קולו ליסרך ועל הארץ הראך את אשו הגדולה כבודו בשמים ואשו וגבורתו על הארץ (מכילתא) ד”א הרכין שמים ושמי השמים והציען על ההר וכן הוא אומר (תהלים יח) ויט שמים וירד

From the heavens I spoke to you: And one verse says “Hashem ‘descended’ onto Mount Sinai”. A third verse comes and decides between them — “from heaven He let you hear his ‘voice, and upon the earth he showed you His great fire in heaven and his fire and might on the earth”. (Mekhilta)

Another thought: He stretched out the heavens and the heavens of heavens, and extended them onto the mountain. And so it says “He extended the heaven and ‘descended’.”

How do we picture the revelation at Sinai? Did Hashem “come down to earth” or did we get a glimpse of heaven? The Mekhilta suggests the latter. But Rashi also offers a second opinion — that heavens were stretched down until heaven and earth coincided at Sinai.

מזבח אדמה: מחובר באדמה שלא יבננו על גבי עמודים או על גבי כיפים (נ”א בסיס) (מכילתא) ד”א שהיה ממלא את חלל מזבח הנחשת אדמה בשעת חנייתן

An altar of earth: Attached to the earth. That you should not build it upon pillars or domes [another variant: or atop a foundation]. (Mekhilta)

Another thought: That you filled the hollow of the bronze altar [of the Mishkan] at the times they camped.

Two understandings of what an “altar of earth” would mean: either an altar that must be on or attached to the earth, or a reference to the earth that filled the mizbeiach of the Mishkan.

It is possible the two comments are two reflections of the same dispute. Note that both offer one opinion by the Mekhilta and then a second interpretation. For this to be true, we would have to view the concept of mizbeiach as a recreation of Sinai. Which would explain why this mitzvah in particular is explained in relation to the three pillars upon which the world stands. The mizbeiach is not only the place of worship, it is also the reconnection to the revelation of how to perfect the three classes of relationships in our lives.

The Mekhilta views Sinai as a glimpse of heaven from down here on earth. And so the altar of earth is one placed firmly on the ground. The gap between heaven and earth must be clear — as is the wondrousness of being able to experience Hashem across it.

In Rashi’s other opinion, heaven and earth met at Sinai. Therefore the recreation of it at the altar is when we take Hashem’s altar and fill it with earth.

Parashas Naso opens with a discussion of oaths and vows. The Torah writes, “A man, when he makes a neider LaShem [oath to HaShem], or gives a shevu’ah [vow] to prohibit something al nafsho [on his living soul].” (30:3)

It is a fundamental principle of Torah study that not a single word is wasted. So, while this pasuq appears repetitious, it isn’t. There must be some subtle distinction between a neider to Hashem and a shevu’ah on one’s nefesh.

The gemara (Nedarim 2b) describes a neider as “when he prohibits an object to himself.” It changes the state of the object, or in Brisker jargon, the cheftza. A shevu’ah, however, is “when he prohibits himself from an object” (ibid). Here, it is the gavra, the individual, who is affected.

For example, if a person were to say, “This thing shall be a qorban for me,” it would be a neider. With his words, he is sanctifying the object, and thereby prohibiting it to everyone. On the other hand, if he were to say, “I will not eat this thing,” he made a shevu’ah. He changed himself, by giving himself a new prohibition. To the rest of the world, the animal may be eaten.

As I already mentioned, the distinction between gavra and cheftza is used frequently in Brisker lomdus. For example, is the gavra exempt from sitting in a sukkah in the rain (or any other circumstance one wouldn’t stay at home through) , or is the cheftza of the booth not technically a sukkah when it’s not in a condition that you would live in? The difference would be whether one accomplishes anything by sitting in a sukkah the first night of Sukkos. If the rain exempts the gavra, then one is fulfilling a non-obligatory mitzvah. A beraskhah would be appropriate, and someone who doesn’t want to miss out on the mitzvah may wait up until midnight in case the rain stops, and sit in the rain for qiddush and hamotzi if it does not. Whereas, if the rain turns the cheftza into a non-sukkah, then the act of sitting in the rain is empty.

With this dialectic between bringing heaven down to earth vs. elevating this world up to heaven, we can get a philosophical perspective on the gavracheftza divide. A neider, or any other obligation on the gavra, takes the angle of improving the self. Admittedly not bringing heaven here, but still — improving the one charged with following Hashem’s Torah and Moral Law in this world. The Sinai revelation as “from heaven I spoke to you“. When we speak of obligations on the chefza we talk about changing the world, elevating it. An altar made of the earth, Mt. Sinai as unifying earth and heaven.

Why the Altar?

It makes a lot of sense that the first mitzvos the Torah teaches after the Aseres haDiberos would be the interpersonal mitzvos of parashas Mishpatim. And many rabbis have given sermons on this point. The only problem is — they aren’t. There is this brief interlude between the description of the national revelation and Mishpatim (20:18-22):

יח וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם. יט לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם. כ מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת-עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלָמֶיךָ, אֶת-צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת-בְּקָרֶךָ, בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת-שְׁמִי, אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ. כא וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי, לֹא תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית: כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ. כב וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת עַל-מִזְבְּחִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ, עָלָיו.

18 Hashem said to Moshe, this is what you should tell Benei Yisrael:

You saw that from the heavens I spoke with you. 19 Do not make alongside me gods of gold, and gods of silver do not make for yourselves. 20 An altar of dirt you should make for me, and sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and peace offerings, your flocks and your cattle — in any place where I will make a memorial to My reputation, I will come to you and bless you.

21 And if you make for me an altar of stones, do not make them hewn, for you have lifted your sword against it and profaned it.

22 And do not go up upon steps on my altar, so that should shall not reveal your nakedness upon it.

Why is it the altar, and why specifically these mitzvos related to the altar, that warrant first mention after the Aseres haDiberos?

Aside from the obligation of how to build the altar itself, three other laws are relayed in this description of the mizbeiach:

  1. Do not make with Me gods of gold and gods of silver
  2. … [D]o not make them hewn, for you have lifted your sword against it and profaned it.
  3. And do not go up upon steps on my altar, so that should shall not reveal your nakedness…

Notice that these are references to the three sins that we are obligated “yeihareig ve’al ya’avor – one must be martyred rather than violate” – avodah zarah, shefichas damim vegilui arayos – idolatry, bloodshed and sexual immorality [literally: revealing nakedness]. Each of these mitzvos takes an ax to one of the pillars upon which the world stands. As I posted a number of years ago:

The three pillars upon which the world stands as described by Shim’on haTzadiq (Avos 1:2) are Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. The Maharal (Derech haChaim ad loc) writes that this is in turn because man lives in three worlds: this one, in which he interacts with other people, the world of his mind, and heaven, which gives him a connection to G-d.

Therefore, the g-dly tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.
After that he says “on avodah”…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him — by serving Him….
With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.
You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

There are three relationships around which the Torah is structured: self-refinement, closeness to G-d, and loving-kindness toward other people. The altar here is being described in those cosmic terms, requiring attention to purity on all three levels.

Immediately after the singular event of their national revelation from G-d, Hashem continues by emphasizing that the religious experience does not stand alone. It is not an escape from “daily reality”, but part of a life-long process of self-refinement. A prelude to the interpersonal laws of parashas Mishpatim.

There is a lesson here in the burial of these fundamentals among the laws of building a mizbeiach.

One week someone sponsored bringing a famous Carlebach-style singer to serve as chazan in our shul for a Shabbos, as well as have kumzitz-style experiences at communal Shabbos meals, havdalah and melaveh malkah. The energy was high. We really felt moved.

But one thing I noticed: between the songs and the dancing, people were talking during davening about how great it all was. The energy was so strong, it was hard to harness and guide correctly.

What is a qorban? In Chassidic terms, it’s “feerin tish” with the Aibishter — sitting at the Almighty’s “table”, “breaking bread” with Him. It is the ultimate religious passionate experience. The word qorban itself refers to the emotional closeness it both expresses and generates.

The pasuq mixes the introduction to sacrifices with the most fundamental laws of Judaism — laws that speak to the very basics of our relationships with Hashem, other people, and mastery of ourselves. The Torah makes it clear that our spiritual experiences must come from halakhah, not despite it.