Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Indivisible” Parashat Emor 5781

A hefty part of the Portion of Emor pertains to the Jewish holidays. Each holiday is surveyed along with its particular precepts. The discussion of the holidays begins with a preamble – [Vayikra 23:2] “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are holidays… which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” – and ends with a summary –  [Vayikra 23:44] “So Moshe declared to the Israelites the holidays of G-d”. While other commandments are preceded by a preamble, precious few of them conclude with the words, “Moshe did what he was supposed to do[1]”. Why would anyone suspect that Moshe decided, for some reason known only to him, not to tell the Jewish People about the holidays[2]?

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the headmaster of the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century, agrees that it was entirely unnecessary for the Torah to inform us that Moshe had completed his mission. The innovation of the verse, teaches the Netziv,  is that Moshe’s transmission of the law was not a one-time phenomenon. Rather, Moshe reviewed the laws of each holiday for the Jewish People once every year, just as that holiday was approaching. Indeed, the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [32a] teaches that Moshe’s “declaration to the Israelites the holidays of G-d” serves as an archetype: “They should read the portion relating to [the holidays], each one in its appointed time… Moshe enacted for the Jewish People that they should make halachic inquiries and expound upon the matter of the day. They should occupy themselves with the laws of Passover on Passover, with the laws of Shavuot on Shavuot, and with the laws of Sukkot on Sukkot.”

The Netziv continues. Not only are the words “Moshe declared… the holidays of G-d” ostensibly unnecessary, so are the words “to the Israelites”. Who else is Moshe going to tell about the holidays – the Klingons? The Netziv explains that the verse is emphasizing that Moshe taught the holidays to each and every individual in a way that he could understand. To those who possessed a halachically analytical mind, Moshe delved into all of the rules and regulations of the holiday[3]. To those who were less astute, he taught via parables and stories. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, who lived during the second half of the eighteenth century, leverages this concept in his monumental Tanya to instil new meaning into words we recite daily in our morning prayers, “Ten chelkenu b’toratecha” – “May we make a portion of Your Torah our own”. The Alter Rebbe explains that not every person’s interest is piqued by the same thing. Some enjoy fiction while others prefer non-fiction. Some prefer learning the Books of the Prophets while others enjoy learning halachic practice. Some like learning Talmud while others prefer studying Jewish Thought. Among those that enjoy Talmud, some prefer the logical acrobatics of the Brisk School while others prefer a more straightforward approach. Stick a person who likes learning philosophy into an intricate lesson on a difficult page of Talmud and this person will fall asleep, not because he does not enjoy learning Torah, but because he does not enjoy this particular flavour of Torah. Our prayer, explains the Alter Rebbe, is that G-d should help us to identify our particular portion in His Torah so that we can immerse ourselves in it. According to the Netziv, this is precisely what Moshe was doing when he “declared to Israel” the holidays of G-d.

While the Netziv addresses the “When?” – once a year – and the “Who?” – for each person according to his individual tastes – he leaves one question unanswered: the “Where?” Let me explain. The first verse of the next portion, the Portion of Behar, is one of the more perplexing verses in the entire Torah [Vayikra 25:1] “G-d spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying…” The topic at hand is the Shemitta, the seventh Sabbatical year in which agriculture in the Land of Israel “rests”. The land lies fallow and no planting or gathering of crops is permitted. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, asks a now-famous question: “What has the matter of the Sabbatical year to do with Mount Sinai[4] [that Scripture felt compelled to expressly state where it was commanded]?” Rashi gives an equally now-famous answer: “Just as the general rules [of the Sabbatical year, its specific prescriptions] and its minute details were ordained on Mount Sinai, so, too, were all commandments with their general rules and their minute details ordained on Mount Sinai.” Shemitta serves as an archetype: Every one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moshe in the most minute detail during the forty days in which he spent on Mount Sinai.

Setting Rashi’s answer aside, this verse introduces a geographic component into scripture. The laws of Shemitta were given specifically on Mount Sinai and not in some other location in the Sinai Desert or in the Plains of Moab. The laws of Shemitta are applicable specifically in the Land of Israel and nowhere else. Could we imagine a similar geographic component built into to the Jewish Holidays[5]?

It has been suggested that a geographic component is built not into the Jewish Holidays, but, rather, into the Jewish People. After the destruction of the second Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash), the Jewish People were dispersed across the four corners of the earth. Miraculously, two thousand year later, Judaism has managed to remain relatively uniform. A Jew from Melbourne can walk into a synagogue in Barcelona, pick up a prayer book and begin praying with the rest of the congregation. Nevertheless, over the years, many communities have developed reputations for their own overarching “meta-flavour” of Judaism. Lithuanians have a reputation for being logical and calculating, the Germans even more so. North African Jews, particularly Moroccans, have a reputation for honouring tradition. And most communities have a reputation for preferring the teachings of Torah scholars that came from their own community. Recently, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue, wrote an article decrying this kind of pigeonholing. Rabbi Goldberg adjures us to see ourselves as “drawing from the richness of the Torah world, uncomfortable and unwilling to lock ourselves into a narrow gate, but instead embracing a vast and expansive entrance.” Rabbi Goldberg quotes Rabbi Asher Weiss, a contemporary halachic decisor (possek), who told Rabbi Goldberg’s congregation that they should have a Lithuanian head and a Hassidic heart, the honesty and integrity of a German and the innocence and purity of a Hungarian, to honour the Torah like a Sephardic Jew and to love Israel like an Israeli.

Rabbi Goldberg’s words are doubly pertinent regarding the Jewish holidays. The Torah commands [Devarim 16:16] “Three times a year – on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths – all of your males shall appear before G-d”. The Torah stresses the word “all of your males” and uses the singular “year’eh kol zechur’cha” rather than the plural “year’u kol zechur’chem”. On our holidays, we stand before G-d in His Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When we stand in His presence, when the finite meet the infinite, our differences become mathematically infinitesimal. We retain our individuality, our individual preferences, and our individual flavour, but as parts of one nation. Our place of birth, our home address, becomes irrelevant. When we are under G-d, we are indivisible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] See, for example, Bemidbar [8:3].

[2] The Kiddush recited on the morning of every Jewish holiday is comprised solely of this verse. It behoves us to understand what we are saying.

[3] In the Pesach Haggadah, we are instructed to teach the Wise Son “It is forbidden to eat after the Pesach Afikoman”. The Vilna Gaon adds the word “ad” – “until” – as if to say that we teach him “until it is forbidden to eat after the Pesach Afikoman”. Rabbi Chaim Brisker, noting that the last Mishna in Tractate Pesachim states “It is forbidden to eat after the Pesach Afikoman”, explains that the Vilna Gaon is actually saying that we should teach the Wise Son the entire Tractate of Pesachim. If he can absorb the data, then we should not withhold it from him.

[4]Ma inyan Shemitta etzel Har Sinai

[5] One obvious difference is that Festivals are one day shorter in the Land of Israel than they are outside of it. This, however, is a result of uncertainty regarding the date of the New Moon and is not explicitly mandated by the Torah.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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