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Torah Sparks

May 5, 2007 – 17 Iyar 5767

Annual: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 23:23 – 24:23 (Etz Hayim p. 727; Hertz p. 522)
Haftarah: Ezekiel  44:15 – 31 (Etz Hayim p. 735; Hertz p. 528)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

This week’s parashah opens with the rules governing the kohanim, the priests. Kohanim generally are prohibited from contact with dead bodies – the exception, a significant one, is when a member of the kohen’s family dies. (Note the sharp contrast with other ancient peoples, notably the Egyptians, whose holy people were very involved with the dead.) Next, we are told whom the kohanim may or may not marry.

Because much of a kohen’s food is taken from the sacrifice, and because if a kohen were to eat any food found to be ritually impure he would temporarily be unable to eat any more of it, the rules governing sacrifices are far more than an abstraction. The parasha give guidelines that determine when a kohen has become impure and how to remedy that situation.

Sacrifices must be brought from the best animals and produce that we have to offer. An animal with an injury or blemish is ineligible for sacrifice. Details of ineligibility are spelled out.

Laws concerning Shabbat and other major holidays are enumerated.

Next come guidelines about the ner tamid – the eternal light -- and the showbread, the twelve loaves on display in the mishkan.

An incident of blasphemy takes place. Punishment is meted out, and laws relating to blasphemy are delineated. Other laws involving major penalties are reviewed.

Issue #1: A Matter of Context

Between the Torah’s outline of the sacrifices for Shavuot and its treatment of Rosh HaShanah, we encounter the following verse:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 23:22)

The placement of this verse is somewhat puzzling to us, since we are conditioned to view the festivals (as well as their corresponding sacrifices) within the category of “ritual.” We are not in the habit of viewing the corners of the field or the gleanings of the harvest as matters of divine concern. Yet we have no basis for assuming that this verse was plunked down accidentally here. What can we learn from the Torah’s apparently deliberate placement of this public policy mandate in the midst of a series of religious requirements?

This question is hardly a new one. The classic commentator Rashi addresses this issue:

…Why is this section placed in the middle of the section on holidays? The placement teaches: One who leaves corners and gleanings for the poor as appropriate, it is as if he built the Temple and offered sacrifices there. (Rashi, ad loc)

How did Rashi address this editorial dilemma? Was his answer similar to one we have given? Does this emphasis suggest that the mitzvah was likely to be observed?

Issue #2: Why Does Sukkot Take Place in the Fall?

We are accustomed to Sukkot falling after the summer has ended. (In Israel, Sukkot takes place at the end of the hot, dry season.) We may ask, however, how the message of Sukkot might have been different if it had been established as a springtime holiday. This question is especially legitimate in light of the passage that outlines the rationale for the sukkah:

You shall live in sukkot for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I caused the Israelite people to live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt … (Leviticus 23:42-43)

A procedure designed to remind us of living conditions after the exodus from Egypt (which, no one disputes, occurred in the spring) logically should be observed at the start of the dry season, not at the end of the summer.

This question was addressed by Rabbi Ya’akov ben Moshe Ha-Levi (d. 1427), known as the MaHaRIL, who lived in Germany. In his book Minhagim (customs), as he transitions from Yom Kippur to Sukkot, he writes:

… the Holy Blessed One therefore commanded to make sukkot during Tishri (in the fall), and not during Nisan (in the spring), even though it is written “when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” For if they were to do it in Nisan, the [fulfillment of the] commandment would not be so evident, since someone who sees him living in a sukkah at that time would say, “The [shade of the] sukkah is pleasing to him, as the days of [oppressive] sunlight are getting underway.” However in Tishri, when the rainy season is beginning and everyone is going into their [permanent] homes, yet [the people of] Israel are establishing their residence in a sukkah, [everyone can understand that] surely it is their intention to do the will of their Father in heaven.

Why does the MaHaRIL find Sukkot’s placement in the fall to be appropriate? Do you agree with his reasoning? If not, do you have a different theory about why the sukkah is appropriate for that time of year? For those who live in a climate where it is not necessarily pleasant to live outside in the fall, how does where we live affect our understanding of the commandment?

Issue #3: What Do We Hope to Accomplish Through Dwelling in a Sukkah?

Writing in fourteenth-century Spain, Rabbi Isaac Aboab put forth the following analysis of the sukkah’s value:

The sukkah is designed to warn us that man is not to put his trust in the size or strength or beauty of his home, though it be filled with all precious things; nor must he rely upon the help of any human being, however powerful. But let him put his trust in the great God, Whose word called the universe into being, for He alone is mighty, and His promises alone are sure. (M’norat Ha-Ma’or III 4:6)

Is this message more valuable for Jews in fourteenth-century Spain or for Jews in twenty-first-century North America?

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