Author Archives: Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

About Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.

Words Of Admonition

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.


Parashat D’varim begins with Moses recounting the history of the Exodus, from the giving of the second set of tablets at Sinai through to the incident of the 12 spies. Moses highlights his own role as leader, and blames the people for the fact that he has been prohibited from entering the Land. Special attention is also paid to the promise of the Land. Moses notes the establishment of the Sanhedrin and the Judicial system.

Moses then jumps ahead and reviews some of the final battles that have been fought, including the battles with Sichon and Og and the acquisition of land to the east of the Jordan (in which they were standing). At the end of this portion, Joshua, who will assume the role of leadership after Moses, is assured that, just as God led Israel to victory in the wilderness, so too God will lead Israel in battle when they cross into the Land.

In Focus

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…. (Deuteronomy 1:1).


It is from this opening line that the Book of Deuteronomy takes its Hebrew name, D’varim, meaning “words.” And that is what Deuteronomy essentially is: Moses’ words. While most of the other books of the Torah since Exodus are expressed in God’s words, spoken through Moses, Deuteronomy is Moses’ discourse, reiterating God’s teachings and exhorting the People of Israel to follow God’s commands. The Rabbinic name for this book is Mishneh HaTorah–the “second law” (not to be confused with Maimonides‘ code of law called the Mishnah Torah), since almost everything in Deuteronomy has been stated before, albeit in a different context.

It is also notable in this opening passage that Moses spoke to all Israel. The entire people who made it to the border of the Promised Land gather to listen to the words of their leader. As Rashi notes, if some of the people were absent, they might have been able to deny that Moses had said all that he said. By gathering the entire people together, all heard the same words at the same time, and all had the opportunity on the spot to reply if they so wished.


Our sages and commentators had much to say about this seemingly simple line of text. To follow on Rashi’s comment above, Simchah Bunem of Prszysucha, a Chassidic sage quoted in Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky‘s modern commentary, Sparks Beneath the Surface, taught that each word that Moses uttered was spoken to all Israel. In fact, Rav Bunem emphasized that Moses spoke to each person according to his or her character and age, and according to his or her level of understanding and perception.

In contemporary terms, this indicates incredible educational insight. Moshe Rabbenu–Moses, the greatest teacher our people has known–understood that each person learned in his or her own distinct way, and spoke so that all could understand. This is not an easy feat even for the most skilled teacher, but it is critical if you want everyone to understand.

There is, however, some irony in Moses’ development into such an inspiring teacher and speaker. These opening words of Deuteronomy serve to emphasize that fact. Lest we forget, 40 years earlier Moses was a man with little skill in speech. As a young shepherd, commanded by God out of the burning bush to confront Pharaoh and lead his people out of slavery, Moses responded by saying, “I am not a man of words” (Exodus 4:10). But now Moses has become a master of words, speaking eloquently and sufficiently to fill an entire book and inspire an entire people.

Rabbi Pinchas Peli (z”l) noted that, had Moses been a man of words when he first assumed the mission of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, he might have become, as so often happens, a “captive of his own eloquence.” He might have spent the rest of his life making fiery speeches about the importance of freedom, rather then leading the people to discover it for themselves. What was needed at the time, Peli concedes, was a man of action, not of words.

It was only years later, with many years of experience behind him, that Moses becomes a man of words. His time to speak comes at the end, when he knows that his days of leadership are coming to an end, when he has brought the people as far as they can go at that point, and there is little left that he can do for them. So he uses the little time he has left to share with them his thoughts and feelings and ideas–his words.

And what were these “words” he decided to share at this time? Or, as one midrash (Yalkut, Devarim 788) asks, “Are these the only words which Moses spoke?” And then the midrash provides the answer: “These words are in a special category. These were words of admonition.” Our tradition suggests that Moses’ words, which he spoke to all the people at the beginning of Devarim, were words of rebuke. Rashi writes that Moses, “is enumerating all the places where they provoked God to anger.”

The midrash goes on to say that Moses chided no one until shortly before their death. He wanted to make sure that they would not get into the habit of repeating rebukes, for that would evoke a negative reaction (Yalkut, Devarim 800). Now, just before his own death, Moses takes the opportunity to rebuke the entire community. It is said in Proverbs (28:23), “He that rebukes another shall in the end find more favour.” As a credit to his skills as a preacher, we are told that the people were fully and unanimously receptive to Moses’ criticisms (Sifrei, Devarim 1:1).

No one likes to hear criticism or be taken to task for our own shortcomings. But it is important for our own growth and development on occasion to hear from those we love and respect (and who love and respect us) when we may have strayed from the path to our best selves. As the leader of the people, Moses had to earn their love and respect before he could admonish them.

As Rabbi Peli concludes, “Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these “words” earlier, but he waited for the right moment. That is why the biblical narrative puts so much emphasis on the place and time of Moses’ speech.”

Davar Aher

There are those unbelievers who claim that the Torah was meant to be observed only in the wilderness far away from the settlements of other groups and nations or in the Holy Land, where Jews dwelt among their own, and where no one would interfere with their customs. They insist that when the Jews dwell among other nations, when they live in the midst of another culture and civilization, they must not keep aloof from their neighbours by clinging to the observance of the Torah and its commandments.

It was to refute this argument that Moses explained the Law to the Children of Israel in all the 70 languages of the world before they entered the Promised Land. He wanted to impress upon his people that they were duty-bound to observe the Torah regardless of what lands they might dwell in, because the Torah was valid for all time and for all countries and was not subject to change (Ketav Sofer).

Holy Words

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.


Parashat Mattot begins with a detailed presentation of the laws pertaining to vows and oaths. Next, Moses is instructed to “take revenge” against the Midianites, and there is a long report on Israel’s terrible battle against Midian. In the aftermath of the war, Moses reminds the soldiers about tumah–the laws of ritual impurity–and deals with the division of booty between the soldiers, community, and the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Next, Moses is approached by the tribes of Reuven and Gad, asking to be apportioned some land on the east side of the Jordan River. At first, Moses is annoyed by this request, but he then relents as long as they agree to continue to fight with the rest of Israel to conquer the land of Israel.

In Focus

If a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips (Numbers 30:3).


This seems pretty straightforward: If you make a promise, you must keep it. However, the text uses two very different terms here to make its point. Neder, translated as “vow,” is generally used to represent a promise to do something (“I vow to give $1000 to tzedakah”). Shevu’ah, on the other hand, is generally translated as “oath,” implying a promise to abstain from doing something (“I swear to stop smoking”). In each case, as soon as it is uttered, the promise is considered binding. A man must carry through what ever he states. And the text does refer to men here.

The passage continues to discuss what happens when a woman makes a vow or an oath. In that case, an unmarried woman’s father or a married woman’s husband can annul her vow if they object to it as soon as they hear about it. If they do not object, then it is binding as stated, just as with a man.


The Torah considers oaths and vows to be serious business. As our passage stipulates, this is especially true since an oath or vow is a pledge to God. As it states in Ecclesiastes 5:4, “It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and fail to fulfill.”  The Rabbis also took oaths as a matter of great concern. An entire tractate of the Talmud, called Nedarim, is devoted to the discussion of oaths and the implications of making oaths.

Vows are taken so seriously because in the Bible no provision is made for them to be absolved. In the passage above, which comprises the heart of the Torah’s teachings about vows, only vows made by a woman can be revoked. In that case, it is the father of an unmarried woman or the husband of a married woman who can annul the stated vow; the woman herself cannot. Therefore, anyone, male or female, who swears an oath or a vow must be fully prepared to go through with their pledge.

However, vows are not considered bad, just serious. We have many examples of approval of vows undertaken by Biblical characters, such as the vow of Jacob at Beth El (Genesis 31:13). Even the Brit itself–the Covenant between God and Israel–is considered a form of vow. The Torah does not even seem to consider that one would make a pledge to God and then default on it. This is especially true since vows are undertaken voluntarily; one is never obligated to make a vow or an oath.

However, by the time of the later Biblical books and certainly by the time of the rabbinic literature, there seems to have developed a problem with people defaulting on oaths. We see two new trends developing. First, people are discouraged from making any vows in general. Second, provisions are developed for the dissolution of certain vows that are made. There is, however, little agreement on these issues.

In the Talmud, (Tractate Hullin 2a) Rabbi Judah states, “better is he who vows and pays,” while Rabbi Meir states, “better is he who does not vow at all.” In the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 37:1), it states, “he who vows and pays receives the reward for both his vow and its fulfillment” while in another part of the Talmud (BT Tractate Nedarim 77b) Samuel (the Sage, not the Prophet) is recorded as saying, “even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked.” The Sages even went so far as to say that the punishment for taking a vow of any kind is that one’s children will die young (BT Shabbat 32b).

The rabbis performed elaborate legal gymnastics to provide for the absolution of vows, called hattarat nedarim, which means “release from vows.” The results of these efforts include the Kol Nidrei chanted on Erev Yom Kippur and other formulas for the nullification of vows stated under coercion or distress. But, in the end they admitted, “the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them” (Tractate Hagigah 1:8).

So we know that we should avoid vows if possible, but we still don’t know why. What is so bad about a vow? Well, Rashi, in his commentary on this passage, notes that the word for “break”–yakhel–is etymologically related to yekhallel–meaning to secularize or make ordinary. Expanding on this idea, the Gerer Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Leib, suggested that from this linguistic link we may infer that the power of the spoken word is holy.

To break a pledge is to take something that is sacred and make it secular, or even profane. We are to guard our words carefully, always being aware of their power. If we are to be holy, then we must keep our words holy. One way to do that, our tradition suggests, is to avoid making vows.

Davar Aher

To swear is a serious sin, even if one intends to uphold what one has sworn. King Yannai had one thousand cities, and all were destroyed because their inhabitants continually swore, even on true things. This occurred because they mentioned God’s name for no reason. How much worse, then, is it when one swears falsely; he shall most certainly be punished!

But if a person makes a vow because he is afraid lest his evil inclination dissuade him from a righteous action, that is permitted. In fact, God ordered that one should make a vow in the case where a person went on an evil path, and a vow will rein him in, to ensure that he no longer returns to that way. As King David said: “I have sworn, and shall fulfill, to heed Your righteous judgments” (Psalm 199:106). We see from this that it is permissible to swear in order to fulfill the commandments. (Tze’enah Ur’enah)

Highest Standards

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.


In parashat Hukkat, we find an overwhelming concern with death. At the beginning we find the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, a very rare animal which is burnt in a special fire outside the camp. Its ashes are then used to ritually purify those who have become impure due to contact with a dead body.

The portion then jumps 38 years to the end of the Israelite’s wandering in the desert. We read the brief description of the death of Miriam, the prophetess who was the older sister of Moses and Aaron, and then an incident about the people’s need for water. These two events are in fact connected by the Rabbis, who notice that stories with Miriam are always associated with water.

The people complain about thirst, and Moses is instructed by God to speak to a rock, which will then produce water. Seemingly frustrated and saddened by his sister’s death, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. Water does flow, but Moses is chastised by God for his lack of trust, and he is told that he will not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land.

We then read of Aaron’s death, and the people’s mourning for him for 30 days. The portion ends describing a number of battles the Israelites must fight as they travel through the wilderness.

In Focus

And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank (Numbers 20:11).


This is really one of the saddest passages in the Torah. Moses, the long time leader of the Israelites and the greatest teacher and prophet our tradition has ever known, loses control of himself, and is punished in a particularly harsh way (from his point of view) by God.

The Israelites are camped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, when Miriam, Moses’s sister and one of the leaders of the people, suddenly dies. The text then tells us immediately afterwards that the people are without water (this is the basis for the strong tradition that teaches that it was because of Miriam’s merit that water was provided to the Israelites in the wilderness).

The people start complaining profusely to Moses and Aaron, who go to the Tent of Meeting to confer with God. God instructs them both to take a rod and, in full view of the entire community, they are to order the rock to give water. Moses and Aaron do as they are told, gathering the people together, but then chastise the people, and demand, “shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” Then, rather then speaking to the rock, Moses hits it twice with the rod. As God promised, water flows from the rock, but Moses and Aaron are taken to task by God for not doing exactly as God instructed.

God declares their punishment: Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter into the Promised Land.


Commentators throughout history have struggled with this passage, trying to come to terms with the severity of God’s punishment of Moses. After all, this is MOSES, the great leader of the people, the one who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites not only out of slavery in Egypt, but then continued to lead them for 40 years, forming them into a people and coping with their day to day gripes. After schlepping around with the contentious people for 40 years, should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the land that has been promised to them for so long? Was he not a fully human leader, surely subject to bouts of self-doubt and frustration?

And let us remember too that Moses was grieving–he had just lost his big sister, the one who helped save his very life when he was an infant. The loss of a close family member must have surely impaired his functioning. What exactly then did Moses do to deserve such a severe punishment? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?

Generally it is understood that Moses was punished for disobeying God’s instructions. God clearly instructed him to “speak” to the rock, but instead he hit it, not just once, but twice. Rashi suggests that God seemed to be dismayed that Moses robbed him of the opportunity to impress the people with the miracle. More simply, Moses displayed a lack of faith or compliance with God’s command, something that was common among the people.

But Moses was not just an average Israelite; he was the leader of the people and therefore expected to set a higher example. As the Zohar (foundational Kabbalistic text) teaches (ii, 47a), “The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if he is unjust, the nation too is unjust and is punished for the sin of the leader.”

Aaron, who witnessed the incident, is also held accountable. If Moses had only hit the rock once, only he would have been punished for the act. But since Moses hit the rock twice, Aaron is deemed culpable as well. After seeing Moses hit the rock once, Aaron should have stopped him before Moses hit the rock a second time.

According to Moses Maimonides, (also known as the Rambam), the main sin of Moses and Aaron was in the language they used when they spoke to the people: “Listen you rebels…” Surely, all the prophets (of which Moses is one) spoke to the people with harsh language, and it was effective and deserved. But here it is deemed inappropriate since the people only sought water, a basic human need. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did, except for his own needs. He compromised his own leadership, and therefore was punished by not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. He could only the lead the people so far.

Moses’s sin may not have been so great. If anyone else had done the same, they surely would have been given a second chance. However, for all the same reasons that we may feel that Moses should have received some compassion, he was held to the highest accountability for his actions. As the leader of the people, he was expected to be the paragon of faith and virtue.

We may understand that he was human, and grief, frustration, weariness and stress can certainly add up to make us less then our best selves. But in positions of high leadership, the tough decisions and constancy of action are expected even during times of weakness. That’s what separates a great leader from a good leader. Moses was great leader, but had his moments of weakness. For that, he was held accountable.

Davar Aher

Moses had spoken against God when Israel had wanted meat, and had said to God, “If You would slaughter all the sheep and oxen in the world, would it suffice?” To say that God could not provide enough meat, is a greater sin than not speaking to the rock but hitting it instead. Why did God not punish Moses then, and sentence him to death in the wilderness? Because the sin of the rock was committed before all of Israel, and thus led to a desecration of God’s name. God will forgive all sins, but Chillul HaShem, the sin of desecrating the Divine Name, God will not forgive. (Tz’enah Ur’enah).

Graced With Food

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.


In this week’s parashah, Moses continues his review of the exodus experience, reminding the Israelites of how God has cared for them in the wilderness. He reiterates the covenant and continues to review the general rewards that will benefit the Israelites if they are faithful to God and follow God’s commandments. It is simple: If the Israelites follow the Torah, God will bless them in the land, and drive out their enemies. If they do not obey God, then….

Moses warns them not to follow other gods or engage in idolatrous worship practices. Moses also reminds the Israelites of some of their earlier rebellious incidents, including the events around the building of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the first set of tablets. The parashah concludes with the passage that is used liturgically as the second paragraph of the Shema. These words reiterate the connection between Israel’s piety and God’s blessing.

In Focus

"You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Eternal your God for the rich land that God has given you" (Deuteronomy 8:10).


In the Torah, this verse comes after a passage in which Moses reminds Israel how God cared for them while they wandered in the wilderness. God gave Israel "manna to eat… in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone" (normally I would use the more gender sensitive and more literally accurate "human" for the Hebrew adam, but the quote is so much more familiar with "man"). It goes on to note that God did not let the Israelites’ clothes wear out nor let their feet swell over the 40 years of their wandering.

Moses then goes on to tell Israel what to expect in the Land of Israel, which they are about to enter. It is a "good land, with streams and springs and fountains." It is a land of "wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey." Moses continues this discourse by telling Israel that the land they are about to enter is, "a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing…."

Keep in mind that, despite the miraculous manna that God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness, their biggest complaints were about hunger and the lack of variety in their food. This promise, then, must have been an incredibly attractive temptation for the people. However, Moses reminds them, they must never forget the source of their sustenance. Therefore, they must always remember, after they have eaten their fill, they must offer thanks to God.


This verse is the basis for the recitation of the grace after eating, called Birkat HaMazon (literally "Blessing of the Food"). The Talmud emphasizes this point by noting that, "It is forbidden to enjoy the fruits of this world without pronouncing a blessing, and whosoever derives such enjoyment without uttering a blessing has committed a trespass" (Berachot 35a). This passage is deemed to be a clear and unequivocal mitzvah, so much so that Rashi and most other Biblical commentators do not even bother to comment on it.

However, that does not mean that this was not a matter of concern to our rabbinic sages. On the contrary, a great amount of discussion is devoted to exactly what constitutes eating and being satisfied and precisely how we are to bless afterwards.

Bread is considered to be the prototypical food. Therefore, the obligation to recite Birkat HaMazon takes affect whenever one eats a k’zayit (an olive-size portion) of bread. If bread is not eaten, the obligation to bless still exists, but alternative blessings are recited.

Birkat HaMazon consists of four different blessings. The first blessing, called Birkat HaZan, praises God for providing food for all creatures. The second blessing, called Birkat HaAretz, expresses gratitude for the "good land" that God has given Israel, for the redemption from Egypt, for the covenant of circumcision, and for the revelation of Torah. The third benediction, called Boneh Yerushalayim, asks God to have mercy on Israel and restore the Temple and the sovereignty of the House of David.

The fourth benediction, called Ha-tov Ve-ha-metiv, expresses thanks to God and includes petitions to God to fulfill specific desires, such as blessing for the house in which one ate and sending Elijah the Prophet (the herald of the messianic time). This fourth blessing also provides us with the opportunity to petition for personal needs and reflect contemporary concerns in our prayers.

The first three blessings are considered to be some of the oldest extant Jewish prayers. The Talmud (Berachot 48b) attributes the first to Moses, after receiving the gift of manna. The second blessing is attributed to Joshua, after the Israelites entered the land of Israel. The third blessing was a combined effort of David and Solomon. David added the words, "For Israel Your people and Jerusalem Your city" after establishing the city of Jerusalem, and Solomon added the words, "For the great and holy House" after the completion of the Temple. The fourth benediction was added later, after the Bar Kochba rebellion (2nd century C.E.), with reference to those who were slain at Betar.

We see then that saying Birkat HaMazon helps to expand our consciousness in two ways: it makes us aware of the source of our sustenance and the chain of transmission that brings our food to our mouths, and it connects us with our history and the spiritual concerns of our ancestors.

The Yiddish term for Birkat HaMazon is to bensch, which means simply, "blessing." In a sense, this reflects the attitude that blessing after meals is "the blessing" par excellence. Just as food is the sustenance of life, this recognition of God providing for all our needs becomes the substance of our spiritual lives.

For many of us, eating can be such a routine, almost unconscious, act. For all of God’s creatures eating is one thing we do each and every day. It is an essential, automatic, act. And yet by remembering to give thanks and blessing to God each and every time we consume more then a crumb of food, we elevate the most routine, ordinary act to a chance to connect with God. That, I believe, is really what this commandment is all about: connecting with God.

It is interesting to me that this text does not say "When you eat and are satisfied, bless God…" but "You shall eat and be satisfied and bless God…". It is not conditional. Unless, God forbid, we are in a situation where we have absolutely nothing to eat and are threatened with starvation, eating is a regular part of our lives. For us as Jews, food is central to our consciousness (for better or worse). But rather then let it become mundane, we elevate eating to an act of worship. By bringing blessing to our food, we bring God into our daily lives. And that, ultimately, is the supreme spiritual act.

Davar Aher

Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless…. This accounts for the grace after meals. How can we prove that there should be a blessing before food? You have an argument a fortiori: if when one is full, one is to say grace, how much more so should one do so when one is hungry! (Talmud Berachot 48b).

Leading By Example

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.


This week’s portion continues the controversial story of Pinhas, which began at the end of last week’s parasha. In a climate of rampant idolatry, Pinhas, a grandson of Aaron who is known as a great zealot, takes a spear and stabs through an Israelite Chieftain who was in the act of consorting with the daughter of a Midianite priest. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, which bears his name, Pinhas is rewarded with the inheritance of the priestly line, which began with Aaron.

The portion continues with a description of Israel’s struggles with the Midianites, and then a census is taken as part of the preparation for battle. As a footnote to the listing of the census, a story is told about a man named Zelophehad who died of natural causes in the wilderness without leaving a son. His daughters come to Moses to complain that their family would lose their father’s property because daughters were not allowed to inherit. Moses consults with God, who agrees that the laws need to be changed. Joshua is formally appointed as Moses’ successor, and the portion concludes with a review of all the sacrificial offerings of the festivals.

In Focus

Let the Eternal, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd (Numbers 27:16-17).


Moses has received notice from God that his death is imminent. Although previously God told Moses that he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, in this parasha God relents a bit and allows Moses to view the land from the top of Mount Abarim. But, before he ascends the mountain, Moses expresses one concern to God: Who will lead the people after I am gone?

Since he had to ask, it seems the answer is not obvious. Moses asks God to appoint someone, and God responds immediately by identifying Joshua, "who has the spirit in him," to be ordained as the new leader of the people. Moses does as God instructs. Before the entire people of Israel, Moses lays his hands on Joshua and invests him with the authority of divinely appointed leadership.


What could be on Moses’ mind as his final days draw near? Fear? Frustration? Relief? As God instructs him to ascend the Heights of Abarim for his end-of-life view of the Promised Land, Moses gives some indication of his concerns. He makes a request of God, but not on his own behalf or even for his family. What concerns Moses most at this time is the people of Israel. Who will lead this wayward people after he is gone? And so Moses prays to God: "Let the Eternal, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community…"(Numbers 27:16).

Who could possibly be a worthy successor to Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher)? Surely the search process would be long. Bring in the headhunters! But the Kotzker Rebbe taught that the answer was obvious: Pinhas, the zealot whose name titles this week’s Torah portion. Having just demonstrated his unflinching fidelity to God and qualities of leadership through his single-handed efforts to purge the idolaters from Israel’s midst, he seemed the natural choice. He was rewarded by God and adored by the people. What other choice could there be?

But Moses, after years of leadership experience, realized that the exact characteristics that made Pinhas popular were not the right traits for a good leader. Pinhas was a man who, in a moment of crises, took the law into his own hands. He was certainly decisive, but acted in a rash and extreme manner. Even though his deed may have served to assuage God’s wrath against the people and earned him God’s favor, it was not enough to sustain the people on a day to day basis.

Moses himself was never a zealot. His successes as a leader came through consistency of vision and skills of communication and negotiation. He lived his life as a dugma ishit, as a role model of human decency. Moses never pushed people; rather, he led them along. And so Moses’ appeal to God continues, outlining those skills important in a good leader, "…who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd."

In response to Moses’s appeal, God identified Joshua Bin Nun as the one to serve as the new leader of Israel. Joshua was not a zealot, but rather, "a man of inspiration"–he had the spirit of God in him. Joshua may not have been the obvious choice; he may not have even been well liked by the people. But with God’s imprimatur, he was the right man for the job.

Davar Aher

Moses asks God to choose a leader over Israel to lead them after his death. Moses saw that God had commanded that Zelophehad’s inheritance had been given to his daughters, and he thought: "Now is the time for me to ask God to give my leadership as an inheritance to my children, so that they may lead Israel as I have led them." But God replied: "This is not My decision. Rather, Joshua, who served you faithfully, did not leave your tent, and learned all the Torah, shall inherit your leadership and shall lead Israel into the Land of Israel (Tz’enah Ur’enah).

Caring For The Dead

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.


This week’s parashah begins with specific restrictions directed at the kohanim, the priests. These restrictions pertain to marriages, sexuality and mourning. Kohanim must not come into contact with the dead, except for immediate blood relatives. They are only allowed to marry certain partners, and some kinds of physical abnormalities disqualify them from service. The food that the kohanim eat may not be shared with “regular” Israelites. And, just as the sacrificial offerings must be perfect, so too the priests themselves must be physically unblemished.

In chapter 23, all of the “set times” or holy days are listed and described, beginning with Shabbat and continuing with Pesach, the Omer period, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The portion ends with a review of the laws pertaining to the menorah, the bread of the altar, and the punishment for murder, maiming and blasphemy.

In Focus

The Eternal spoke to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among this people. (Leviticus 21:1)


Continuing from the previous week’s instructions to the priests, focusing on matters of holiness, parashat Emor commences with a pronouncement that the kohanim are not to allow themselves to become tamei (ritually impure) through contact with a corpse. This is a pretty common type of impurity, which the priests are specifically warned against.

gravestoneHowever, the passage continues with an exception: Priests can (and, in fact, are obligated to) tend to their immediate blood relatives (parents, children and siblings–spouses were added to this list by the later sages) when they have died. While tending to the dead is an important obligation for everyone, it does render one impure, and therefore unable to participate in the ritual life of the community. While this may not be a huge issue for most Israelites, especially when compared to the passing of a loved one, for the priests, this means they are not able to fulfill their role as the facilitators of worship.


One of my favorite modern commentators, Pinchas Peli (z”l) (may his memory be a blessing) reminds us that back in Egypt, death was big business. All of life in ancient Egypt, especially for the aristocracy, revolved around building one’s “house of eternity.” This “house of eternity” referred to both one’s legacy in this world and one’s place in the world to come. For many Egyptian and other pagan priests, the preparation of tombs and the rituals of the dead were their main preoccupation. Egyptian priests focused much more on the dead then the living.

But not so for the Israelite priest. The koheyn’s duty is to serve the living; to serve as a teacher and model of holiness for the people. The priest is actually prohibited from even coming into contact with the dead. Doing so makes him tamei (impure) and therefore unable to fulfill his priestly responsibilities.

But this “impurity” is not transmitted from the corpse. The Torah is not telling us that there is anything intrinsically dirty or evil about a dead person. Death is, so to speak, a part of life. To emphasize this point, the exemption is stated to allow the koheyn to take care of the preparation and burial of those closest to him: parents, siblings and children. This is, in fact, the obligation of every Jew.

The mitzvah, commandment, of Livayat HaMet, the accompanying of the dead to their final burial place, is considered one of the most important of all the mitzvot. Why? Because it is considered to be the only truly selfless act; it is the only “favor” you can do for another without any expectation of the favor being returned. Helping another in their transition from this world to the next is the supreme human obligation. It will happen to us all, yet no one truly understands how this transition takes place. We can only guess, and try our best to help.

So important is this act that no one, including the high priest, can shirk this responsibility toward close relatives, or even towards the lonely or poor (met mitzvah) who have no one else to bury them. However, we must realize that it is not death that defiles the priest and renders him incapable of tending to his duties. Rather, it is the shifting of the focus of his duties from the living to the dead that distracts the priest from his obligation to the living.

We respect and mourn our dead, but Judaism is primarily about life. As it says in the Psalms, “The dead cannot mourn the Eternal” (Psalm 115). Death is a part of life. Because of this respect for life, taking care of the dead is considered such an important duty. We don’t abdicate the responsibility to priests or professional undertakers–we take care of it ourselves. This is why the Hevra Kadisha (literally “holy fellowship”–the traditional Jewish burial society) exists, to help us meet this need. We bring holiness into our lives through our respect for life. Even after death, we continue to honor the relationships of our life.

Sensitivity To Speech

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.


The portions of Tazria and Metzora are perhaps, for many, the two most uncomfortable portions of the Torah, dealing with all kinds of issues related to ritual purity and impurity. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with hygiene. Instead, tumah is a spiritual state that prevents a person from participating in the worship life of the community. One becomes impure through a variety of means, all of which are perfectly natural, such as illness, childbirth, physical discharges and contact with a corpse.

Purity and impurity are not related to good or evil. However, impurity is considered to be a spiritual disability. For example, Tzaraat, the skin affliction that is discussed at length in this part of the Torah, is not the biological disease leprosy (as it has historically been translated–it is probably something more like psoriasis or impetigo, which are common in the desert) but rather a state that the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem.

This is not a medical treatise, nor are the Kohanim (priests) serving as paramedics. Rather, tumah is a purely ritual concern, and as the ritual leaders of the community, it falls upon the priesthood to facilitate purification for those who find themselves in a state of impurity.

In Focus

And God spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the Metzora (one afflicted with tzaraat) on the day of his purification; he shall be brought to the Kohen (priest).” (Leviticus 14:1)


In Parashat Metzora, the Torah discusses the process of purification the Metzora must undergo in order to become ritually pure again.


The late Rabbi Pinchas Peli (z"l) relates the following tale:

In the town of Sepphoris, the voice of a street peddler was heard, crying out, "Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?" The great Rabbi Yannai was sitting in his academy studying when he heard the peddler’s voice. He went out on his balcony to see what it was the man was selling, but he could see nothing. And so he sent one of his students to bring the peddler to his study.

As the peddler entered, Yannai said, "Come here, show me what it is that you have to sell." The peddler replied, "What I have to sell is not required by you, nor by people like you." But the Rabbi pressed him, and finally the peddler approached him and drew a Book of Psalms out of his satchel. He opened the book and showed the rabbi the passage that states, "Who is the man who desires life?" (Psalm 34:13), and then the passage that follows immediately thereafter: "Keep your tongue from evil; depart from evil and do good."

Rabbi Yannai, then said, "All my life I have been reading this passage, but did not know how to explain it until this peddler came and made it clear to me. Now I see that the same idea is also expressed by King Solomon, who proclaimed in a proverb, "He who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from trouble." (Proverbs 21:33).

Who are they who desire life? They who keep their tongues from evil. The one who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from trouble.

When we look at the historical setting of this story, in Palestine in the early third century, we can see that this story is not just a simple little moral tale. The land of Israel at this time was in turmoil. There were revolts and insurrections against the Roman conquerors. Roman spies and informers were everywhere, constantly on the watch for clues of rebellion.

The peddler, in his surreptitious manner, was passing the word that everyone should be wary of what they say. In a good Jewish manner he was passing the word: loose lips sink ships. Rabbi Yannai, by responding with his own remarks, indicated his support for this clandestine effort. He reiterated the message: those who desire life, those who want to survive these oppressive times, should watch their words.

It is interesting though to see the context in which this midrashic story is presented (Vayikra Rabba 16). It is presented in a commentary on the laws of Tzaraat, which are presented in our Torah reading this week. The laws of the Metzora have long been the basis for numerous rabbinic homilies against the spread of lashon ha-ra–literally "evil speech" or gossip. Metzora, the rabbis conjectured, sounded just like motzi-ra–the bringing forth of evil with the mouth. Cause and effect: if one is guilty of lashon ha-ra, one will be afflicted by tzaraat and thus becomes a Metzora.

But the Torah tells us that tzaraat is not a permanent condition. One can become healthy again. Neither the condition, nor the sin that precipitated it, is hopeless. There is always the possibility of Teshuva–expiation for one’s misdeed–and a process by which the unclean Metzora could again become pure and rejoin the community. This process always exists for us, no matter what our sin.

Dvar Aher

Also implicit in this verse is the thought that the Metzora, even while he is still outside the camp, should be impelled by his own free will to repent and come to the priest in order to be cleansed. It is only in response to his personal resolve to become pure that he should be taken to the priest and thus brought closer to the state of purity.

Only after the Metzora has decided to take positive action leading to repentance and purity, shall "the priest go forth out of the camp" to cleanse him. People must rise to actions themselves before they can expect action from above. (Shem MiShmuel)

Clothes Make The Person

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.


We continue with the theme that defines most of the rest of the Book of Exodus: the construction and institution of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was the place of worship for the Israelites and the House of God among the people during the years of wandering in the wilderness.

Parashat Tetzaveh specifically focuses on the Kohanim, the Priests who perform the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Great detailed descriptions are given of the complex ritual garments of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest–regally resplendent in gold and adornments of precious stones. Details are also given for the seven-day period of sacrifices and rituals required to consecrate the priests for service. The parashah ends with a short description of the golden altar upon which incense was offered and how it too is to be consecrated.

In Focus

Make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for dignity and splendor. (Exodus 28:2)


Following the instructions for the building of the Aron Kodesh (the Ark) in last week’s parashah and the lighting of the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) at the beginning of the week’s portion, the Torah’s attention turns to issues related to the Kohanim (Priests). In a way, the Priests are considered to be in the same category of Klay Kodesh ("holy tools") as the other objects built for the Mishkan. Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his sons are selected to serve in this important and hereditary office of religious leadership.

But, before any discussion of the Priest’s actual responsibilities, their elaborate and regal vestments are described. Like all the other implements that will be used in the Tabernacle for the worship of God, the priestly garments are to be made of the finest materials, to be both functional and splendid. The costume of the high priest especially is very symbolic of the Kohen Gadol’s responsibility to serve on behalf of the people.


"Clothes make the man," the old saying goes. Well, clothes certainly do seem to impress us human beings. Nothing tells you more about a person, or makes a greater first impression, than how one is dressed. It’s quite remarkable, really. A person’s entire character can be summed up by someone who does not know them simply by how they are dressed.

Jobs have been won and lost, relationships continued or ended, all based on the clothes we wear. The fashion industry certainly understands this important detail of human nature. That’s how they make their money. And so do schools and the military.

The whole point of putting people into uniforms is to minimize their differences; to make individualization impossible, and to reduce independence. You are what you wear. When we dress the same as others, it is because we don’t want to be seen as different. When we do want to stand out, we can do so through what we wear.

The Torah certainly understands this as well. In this week’s parashah, more than forty verses, an unusually high number for any single topic, are devoted to the subject of the Bigdei Kodesh, the holy clothing or ritual garments for the high priests. "Make Bigdei Kodesh–holy garments–for Aaron your brother," Moses is told, "for dignity and splendor." Most of the rest of this text is elaboration of this command; details of how these garments are to be made.

So what is so important about the garments of the High Priest? Does not Judaism, particularly in a ritual sense, usually focus on the inner qualities, frowning on such outward materialism as clothing? How then can these garments be holy? How can they alone bring dignity and splendor?

It seems that Torah is indeed telling us that clothes do make the man, or at least the role in which the man is serving. Aaron, already well respected and loved among the people, is to be dressed as befits a Kohen Gadol–a High Priest. When he engages in work that is holy, he is to be suitably dressed in holy garments; clothes that add dignity and splendor to the work.

This is Hiddur Mitzvah–the enhancement of the fulfillment of a mitzvah (commandment), through the adornment of the act. This is why we say Kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the mitzvah–but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.

But Ramban (Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) notes that the commandment to dress the High Priest in garments for glory (kavod) and splendor (tiferet) is not only to enhance the status of the priest himself, but also to enhance the glory of God.

Ramban notes that in the mystical teachings, kavod and tiferet are Sefirot, Kabbalistic terms for emanations of God. And so, through these very specific types of garments worn by the Priest, God is connecting with the people and God’s presence amongst the people is further demonstrated. In some way, the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out in the priest and worn on the outside with his clothing.

Just as the crown and royal colors command the respect of a people for a king, and enhance his position among his people, so too the Bigdei Kodesh add much to the honor and esteem of the High Priest, and to the Divine One whom the High Priest serves.

Through dressing in special garments, the priest is constantly reminded of his special role, and the sanctity of his calling. It is a symbol, a reminder. But Bigdei Kodesh–holy clothes–are only holy when they cover Ish Kodesh–a holy person. To be an Ish Kadosh one does not need to be a priest. We all have the potential for such holiness. Perhaps we just need to dress the part….

Dvar Aher

These are the clothes that they shall make… (Exodus 28:4)

The High Priest is compared to an angel, and must have special garments to do his work. Just as an angel is pure, so must the Kohen Gadol be pure as he accomplishes his tasks.

Rabbi Bechaye asks: Why are only six garments enumerated in this portion, when the High Priest actually wore eight garments? Because this parashah refers only to the garments in which Moses clothes him. The High Priest himself put on his trousers in private; and the tzitz was a platelet of gold worn on his forehead. It was an accessory rather than an article of clothing, and so was not mentioned here. (Tze’enah Ur’enah)

Give And Take

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.


With Parashat Terumah, the major theme of the rest of the Book of Exodus is now introduced. Great detail is given about the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the portable sanctuary that was the centre of the Israelites’ religious life during the years they wandered in the wilderness. The Mishkan was “God’s dwelling place amongst the people,” where sacrifices were offered and God communicated with the people through Moses and the High Priest.

Very detailed instructions are given to Moses as to how the Mishkan should be built and what materials are to be used. Included among the Klay Kodesh (“holy implements”) are the Menorah, the altar for sacrifices, the Ark, and the Holy of Holies. The portion begins with God asking Moses to ask the Israelites to bring Terumah, usually translated as “gifts,” meaning something like “contributions” or “donations,” but they are to be freewill offerings.

In Focus

Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for Me a gift offering; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:2)


Moses is up on Mount Sinai and God is giving him instructions to pass on to the Israelites. The specific topic of discussion at this point is the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). But before God passes on the details of how the Mishkan is to be built, they must discuss the building campaign–how they will collect the materials needed for this lavish construction project. The answer (you guessed it) is fund-raising. Moses is to ask the Israelites to bring Terumah–“gifts”–for the building of the holy place. However, these are not taxes, but rather donations–freewill offerings from each person “whose heart so moves him.”


Anyone who has ever sat on a synagogue [board], school [board] or other non-profit board knows how important fund-raising is. Without that kind of important support, these significant institutions would not exist. But they also know how difficult it is. Convincing people to part with their hard-earned funds to support even a worthy institution is, understandably, not easy. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to convince a group of people just two weeks out of slavery to make contributions to build a house of worship for an invisible (in Egypt they could at least see the “gods” in the temples) God. Talk about a hard sell.

God, in asking this of Moses, seems to understand the difficulty of the task. And so the language of the request is very precise. God asks the Israelites to “take” for Me Terumah. An interesting choice of words. Can you “take” a freewill offering? It really means that the Israelites should “give” a gift for the construction of the Tabernacle. But instead it says they should “take.”

Rashi seems to connect the use of the verb “take” to the specific type of offering being requested. Terumah is defined as a “heave offering;” a special type of offering that is to be “set apart.” Therefore it is the individual himself who “takes” the offering voluntarily from his own possessions and designates it as a sacred gift.

But a Yiddish folktale gives another perspective on the difference between “giving” and “taking.”

“Yankel the Cheapskate” would not give money to anyone, for any reason. It didn’t matter how important the cause. No one could crack him. He just wouldn’t contribute. One day, Yankel was crossing the river in a small boat. Suddenly, a huge storm breaks out, and his boat capsizes. Luckily, another boat approached. The sailor calls out to him: “Give me your hand. Give me your hand.”

Yankel can barely hear him over the strong winds and the roaring waves. He hears only one word, over and over: “Give, Give…”

And good old Yankel can’t help himself. He yells back: “No. I don’t give. I don’t give.”

Again: “Yankel, give me your hand! Give me your hand.” And again Yankel screams: “Never. I don’t give.”

Finally, in desperation, the rescuer yells: “Yankel, take my hand.” And Yankel says: “Oh, take? Sure.”

Jewish tradition teaches us that giving–Tzedakah–the opportunity to help others–is just that: an opportunity. It is a privilege that benefits us as much as the ones to whom we give. Therefore there is really little difference between giving and taking. Every time we give–we are really taking.

There is an old folk saying: “A fool gives and a wise person takes.” The wise person realizes that it is he who benefits most from his action of giving. This is the difference between charity and Tzedakah. In charity, we give, and it is a one way street. With Tzedakah, we are actually obligated to give, everyone, equally. It is an act of righteousness. If everyone gives, then we benefit from living in a society where everyone’s needs are met, and none are in need. To live in such a society benefits all. To live in such a society is a privilege. And for all that we give, we benefit much more.

Dvar Aher

Take for me an offering (Exodus 25:2).
King Solomon says, Take my rebuke, and not money (Proverbs 8:10). This means that a person should take Torah’s words of rebuke to heart, rather then simply amass wealth. Through the Torah one can possess this world and the next, while material possessions lead to nothing but worry and aggravation. (Tz’enah Ur’enah)

The Evolving Name Of God

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

We begin reading now from the second book of the Torah, called "Exodus" in English. This is from the Greek translation of the Rabbinic name of the book, Sefer Yitziat Mitzraim ("the book of the going out from Egypt"). In Hebrew the book is called Sh’mot ("Names"), following the tradition of naming a book or portion after the first significant word. Therefore, this first parashah of Sh’mot is also called Sh’mot.

Sh’mot begins directly where Bereshit left off: listing the "names" of the descendants of Jacob who came down to Egypt after Joseph. Seventy members of Jacob’s family went down to Egypt, but we are told they were very fertile and increased greatly in Egypt.

The action really begins when we are told that a new king comes to the throne in Egypt. Fearing that this growing band of Israelites might prove to be a threat, he enslaves and oppresses the people. When that did not succeed in curbing their growth, he issues orders to the midwives to kill at birth all new-born Israelite boys. But, fearing God more than Pharaoh, the two midwives refuse the order, setting the stage for the birth of Moses, the man who will become the great leader of Israel.

Moses is Born

Born to the tribe of Levi, the infant Moses survives his birth and is hidden for a few months after he is born. When she can no longer hide him, his mother leaves him in a basket floating on the Nile, under the watchful eye of his older sister Miriam. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh, who adopts him and hires his mother as a wet-nurse. Thus Moses emerges as a man living in two worlds: the world of the Israelite slaves in which he was born, and the world of Egyptian royalty, in which he was raised.

The text then jumps ahead. Now a man, seeing a taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, Moses kills the Egyptian and then must flee. He runs to Midian, where he is welcomed by a Midianite priest and is given his daughter Zipporah as a wife. She gives birth to a son.

While tending his new father-in-law’s flocks, Moses is called by God from the burning bush. God instructs Moses to return to Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery. Moses returns and is reunited with his brother Aaron. Together they go and pay their first visit to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh dismisses Moses and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.

In Focus

Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (I will be what I will be)." (Exodus 3:13-14)


Moses, as can be expected, is overwhelmed by his theophany at the burning bush. Moses is not quite sure what is being asked of him, or who is asking.

The voice coming out of the bush identifies itself as "the God (Elohai) of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Like the English word "God," the use of the Hebrew El or Elohim denotes the basic generic idea of "god." God here is self-defined by the relationships with the patriarchs; "I am the same God who was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." But a proper name is not given.

It is then explained that God has noted the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and that Moses is the one that God has chosen to go before Pharaoh to release the people from slavery. Moses then first demands to know why he has been chosen, and is assured that God will be with him.

Moses then asks again for the voice to identify itself, this time phrasing his inquiry as a request on behalf of the Israelites: "What shall I say to them?" Coming from the polytheistic environment of Egypt, Moses is not just satisfied knowing which god is speaking to him from the burning bush. He wants a proper name. This time God answers somewhat cryptically: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This appellation, which is most often translated as "I am who I am," is not explained. God then continues, "This shall be my name for ever."


The name of God remains something of a mystery to us. Our tradition, beginning with the Torah, refers to God in so many different ways. Some of these designations may be proper names, some titles, others references to one of God’s many attributes or characteristics, and yet others simply terms that we humans use to try and describe the unknowable.

The true name of God is thought to possess awesome power, and has only been used sparingly and carefully. Hence this somewhat ambiguous exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush. Moses seems to understand the power of the name and its importance in convincing the Israelites themselves to follow. God does not seem to want to be nailed down to one fixed reference. God’s answer is a miracle in of itself, pushing the linguistic boundaries of the Biblical Hebrew language to allow for the greatest range of possible meanings.

Without going into a complete review of every way our tradition refers to God, we can begin by asking what motivated Moses to inquire of God’s name, and then, hopefully, we can better understand God’s answer. Did Moses not know?

Ramban (Nahmanides) points out that if the people of Israel knew God’s name, Moses most likely knew the name as well, his knowledge being equivalent to theirs, and therefore telling them God’s name would prove nothing. Likewise, if they did not know it, if Moses told them, it would not better convince them to believe him. So why bother asking?

Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator) suggests that Moses well knew the many different names of God, and what each name represents. Therefore, he was simply asking which name to use, that is, which name will best convince the people that God will save them with great miracles and wonders.

But Ramban disagrees. He feels that if this was the case, Moses should have known that the name ‘El Shaddai ("God Almighty") would suffice. Instead, Ramban feels that Moses’s question indicates that he was already an advanced prophet.

Moses perceived that the people would want to know which attribute of God they can expect to encounter; that is, what their experience of God will be, and what is going to happen to them. God’s answer, then, leaves things open-ended. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh is based on the future tense conjugation of the Hebrew verb meaning "to be." Often translated as "I Am Who I Am," the phrase is more accurately translated as "I Will Be That Which I Will Be." The people will come to know God through their unfolding experiences together.

Ramban uses a Midrash to explain that this name is, in of itself, a model of the covenantal relationship between God and the people. The name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh teaches us that God will be with the people of Israel in the same way as the people will be with God. If the people are giving, God will be giving. If the people are not giving, then God will not be giving to the people.

Elsewhere the Midrash (Sh’mot Rabbah 3:6) provides another explanation. Noting that the word Ehyeh appears three times in verse 3:14, the Midrash teaches that God answers Moses’s question by saying, "I am the One who has been, Who is now, and Who will be in the future."

The Rabbis explain that, for God the Creator, past and future are all conceived of in terms of the present. God does not live in time as we humans do. God simply "is." As Maimonides expressed it, "God is the true Being" and Moses, "grasped the truth of God’s being." Moses, who saw God "face to face," in his advanced wisdom was able to recognize God as is, without any connection to the actions or functions which are attributed to God.

But the Israelites, like us, were not this advanced. They needed to know what to expect of God in much more concrete terms. Hence the plethora of names of God that have developed. These are not all actually God’s names, but simply ways that we can relate to God in human terms.

The only thing that is clear about God’s name as presented in our parashah this week is that it is unclear. It seems to tease us, saying, "You want to know my name, just wait and see!"

But God, in relation to the people of Israel, is inextricably linked to Revelation, and Revelation, like this name, is progressive. We come to know more and more about it as time goes on, slowly, slowly, unraveling each mystery one by one, coming to increasingly higher levels of understanding as our experiences demand. God may simply "be," but God is conceived of by each generation in a different way, and in a different way by each person in that generation.

That is also why, in the Avot prayer at the beginning of the Amidah, we say, "…the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…" Why not just say, "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob"? It is the same God, after all. But God was known by each of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) in a unique and individual way. Each had a different experience of God, as did Moses, all those who left Egypt, and all those who followed (including us).

The text here really is brilliant. In choosing the future tense of "to be," (which is also, by the way, the only truly gender neutral tense in the otherwise gender specific Hebrew language) the Torah allows the linguistic structure itself to transmit the message. While God is absolute, there are no divine absolutes; each of us, in our own time, will come to know God in our own way.

Dvar Aher

Moses came to Mount Horeb (or Sinai), where the Torah was ultimately to be given. God appeared to him in the form of fire, within a bush, but the bush was not consumed by the fire. Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th century commentator) and Rabbi Bechaye ask: Why did God appear through fire? Because when the Torah would be given it would be accompanied by flames.

Moses said, "I will go to see why that bush is not consumed." God called to him, "Moses, Moses," and he replied, "I am here." God then told him, "Remove your shoes from your feet, for the earth upon which you are standing is holy."

Why did he hear his name twice? Because the voice of heaven is very powerful, and sounds like two separate voices. Another reason is because the first time a man hears a heavenly voice he is overwhelmed and is rendered speechless, so he must be called a second time.

God told him, I am the God of your father (3:6). With this He informed him that his father was dead, because God does not couple the divine name with the name of a person still living. Why did God tell him that his father was dead? Because God knew that out of deference Moses would refuse to assume any authority as long as his father was alive. (From Tz’ena Ur’enah)

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