Ari Sacher

‘Phase Change’ Parashat Tzav – HaGadol 5783

The last half of the Portion of Tzav describes the Initiation Ceremony underwent by Aaron and his sons in preparation to officiate in the Tabernacle (Mishkan). The ceremony consists of a the offering of a number of sacrifices, followed by a waiting period of seven days during which Aaron and his sons are not permitted to leave the entrance of the Mishkan. The Torah concludes its description of the ceremony with a directive [Vayikra 38:4]: “As he did on this day, so has G-d commanded to do, to effect atonement for you.” The simple meaning of the verse is that before a new Priest (Kohen) can serve in the Mishkan, where he can “effect atonement” for the sins of the Jewish People, he must undergo a similar ceremony.

Rashi[1] uncharacteristically spurns the simple meaning of the verse and takes a more esoteric path. Drawing from the Talmud in Tractate Yoma [2b], Rashi explains, “The words ‘So has G-d commanded to do’ refer to the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah) and the words ‘to effect atonement for you’ refer to Yom-Kippur.” According to Rashi, the verse is not referring to the Mishkan Initiation Ceremony. Rather, it is teaching that the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) who officiates at the Yom Kippur ceremony (avoda) requires a seven-day separation from his family as does the Priest (Kohen) who burns the Red Heifer that is used in the purification of one who has become ritually impure after coming into contact with a corpse.

The Ben Ish Chai[2], writing in the “Aderet Eliyahu”, proposes a hypothesis as to why a verse that clearly pertains to the Mishkan Initiation Ceremony is actually is referring to something else entirely. The Ben Ish Chai begins his hypothesis with a pseudo-scientific analysis of the effects of sunlight. Sunlight, he teaches, has a self-contradictory nature. On the one hand, sunlight causes water to evaporate, leaving a residue of minerals. Similarly, sunlight causes fruits to dry, turning them to leather. Yet that very same sunlight can also cause ice to melt, creating water. Another self-contradictory property of sunlight, continues the Ben Ish Chai, is that while it dulls the colour of clothing, it also darkens the tone of the skin. The Yom Kippur ceremony and the Red Heifer both have a similar self-contradictory nature: The Red Heifer, while purifying those who are impure, renders the Kohen that burns it ritually impure, while the Yom Kippur ceremony must be performed by the Kohen Gadol who wears the uniform of a regular Kohen. Noting that the sun is sometimes called “day”[3], the Ben Ish Chai explains the verse as follows: Just as G-d created sunlight with a self-contradictory nature, so, too, did He define the self-contradictory nature of the Yom Kippur avoda and the Red Heifer.

Other than completely divorcing the verse from the topic at hand, the biggest problem with the explanation of the Ben Ish Chai is that it is based on a gross misunderstanding of science. For instance, sunlight’s so-called “self-contradictory” effect on clothing and on skin comes from the same source: solar energy. The reason that sunlight causes colours to dull is because solar energy breaks the molecular bonds of the pigment that makes your blue jeans blue. The reason that sunlight causes skin to tan is that it makes the body release melanin that repairs the skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation found in sunlight. In this essay, we will try to incorporate some hard science into the explanation of the Ben Ish Chai, and by doing so, to shed a different light on our verse.

All matter exists in one of four states: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. There exist other exotic states, such as neutron-degenerate matter and quark-gluon plasma, but for the purposes of this exercise, we will stick to the solid, liquid, and gas phases that we learned in high school. As matter is heated, it undergoes a series of phase changes. Let us start with a block of solid matter and then begin to increase the temperature. When the substance reaches its melting point[4], it will undergo a phase change and will become a liquid. If it is heated to its boiling point, then it will undergo another phase change and will become a gas. If the gas is then cooled, it will revert back to a liquid and then, eventually, back to a solid. A familiar example is water (H2O). Water exists as solid ice until it is heated to 0o Celsius, where it melts and becomes liquid water. At 100o Celsius, it undergoes another phase change and turns into gaseous steam. Another way in which a liquid can become a gas is via a process called “evaporation”. Evaporation occurs when molecules on the surface of a substance, say, a cup of water, attain sufficient energy to overcome the vapour pressure of the surrounding air. Evaporation occurs even if the substance remains below its boiling point. The more a substance is heated, the faster its molecules move and the faster it evaporates. The moisture in a fig sitting in the blazing sun will quickly evaporate and the fig will turn into a dried fig. To summarize, while ice, water, steam and water vapour might look and behave very differently, they are all comprised of precisely the same H2O molecules.

Now we return to the concluding verse of the Mishkan Initiation Ceremony. People often say that when a person sins, his soul becomes sullied and it must be cleansed. I suggest looking at things differently: When a person sins, his soul undergoes a phase change. It is the same soul he had before. He is the same person he was before he sinned and yet something has clearly changed. Perhaps his soul has become too cold as a result of apathy or rote and has solidified. Perhaps his soul has become too warm as a result of envy or perhaps an overly active libido and has boiled over. When a person repents, in the Mishkan or in the comfort of his own home, he does not purge his soul as much as he changes its phase. Too many people are deterred from repentance by the assumption that “I cannot change who I am”. Repentance does not require change. What it requires is a thermostat: A person who is spiritually cold should look for ways to ignite his spirit and a person who is spiritually boiling should try spending less time on his smart phone.

This explanation can lend insight to the Four Questions (Ma Nishtana) that we will recite next week at the Pesach seder. To use the terminology of the Ben Ish Chai, the Four Questions seem to be self-contradictory. On the one hand, we eat matzo, the “bread of affliction”, along with the bitter herbs (marror), both signifying slavery and destitution. On the other hand, we dip our herbs (karpas) and our marror and we lean back and loosen our belts, signifying freedom and plenty. While one of the motifs of the Seder, as delineated by the Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [116a], is that we begin the Seder with the bad news and end with the good[5], the Seder bounces almost randomly around between slavery and freedom. First we lean when we drink the first cup of wine and then we dip the karpas in the saltwater, but then we change gears and eat the matzo and the marror. Then, we change gears once again as we lean when we drink the third and fourth cups of wine. So what are we – slaves or free men? The answer is that we are both and we are neither. Since the Egyptian Exodus, the Jewish People have gone into exile three more times and nevertheless we continue to celebrate the Egyptian Exodus. When the Jewish People left Egypt, they did so as one nation. Subsequent exiles cannot change who we are. We do not change, only our phase does. Whether we are solid, liquid, or gas, we will remain at our core the same nation that shook off the shackles of Pharaoh’s slavery and followed G-d blindly into the desert to accept His Torah.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

This essay is in memory of Avi Mandelbaum, a friend, a chavruta, and in so many ways, a brother. Yehi zichro Baruch.

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[2] Rabbi Yossef Chaim, known by his acronym “Ben Ish Chai (Chai is an abbreviation of ‘Chaim Yossef’)”, lived in Baghdad in the nineteenth century.

[3] See Bereishit [1:5].

[4] The melting point and freezing point of a substance are typically one and the same unless the system exhibits a phenomenon called thermal hysteresis, a topic that is a bit heady for this essay.

[5] Translation of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

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 2000 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.
Related Topics
Related Posts