Parshas Vayikra / Zachor

This Shabbos marks the beginning of our reading the third book of the Torah, Sefer Vayikra which deals primarily with the services and responsibilities of the Kohanim. This week’s portion focuses on many of the korbanos (offerings) to be brought in the newly-constructed Mishkan. Parshas Vayikra begins with G-d calling Moses into the Mishkan where he will receive many relevant mitzvos to be ultimately passed on to the Jewish people. The first half of the Torah portion describes the various optional korbanos brought by individuals. They can be classified into three general categories, each one comprised of several gradations in size and expense; the korban olah (elevation offering) which is completely consumed on the altar; the korban mincha (meal offering) which, because of its inexpensive contents is usually brought by someone of modest means; and the korban shelamim (peace offering) partially burned on the altar, with the remainder divided between the owners and the Kohanim.

The second half of the portion (beginning with chapter four) discusses the required chatos (sin) and asham (guilt) offerings to be brought as atonement for unintentional transgressions. This Shabbos we have a special, additional Torah reading, Parshas Zachor. That text (Devarim, 25: 17-19) teaches us the mitzvah to remember to wipe out Amalek.

The first of the Four Special Shabbatot at this time of year is Parshas Shekalim. The special maftir reading discusses the census that would happen at this time of year in Temple times. Each person would give one half-shekel. The money would be counted, and that would determine the census. And the Torah makes very clear that “the poor person shall not give less, and the rich person shall not give more.”

Following on the heels of the Ten Commandments, this week’s Torah portion deals primarily with civil law. Like the realm of the ceremonial, our worldly and common activities must be infused with holiness and observed carefully. Included among the civil laws discussed in the portion are: Penalties for causing bodily injury to another person and damaging his property; laws regarding borrowers; the mitzvah to show sensitivity to the poor and to offer them free loans; and laws relating to the honest dispensation of justice. After mentioning the mitzvos of Shabbos and Shemittah (the Sabbatical year), the portion continues with a brief discussion of the three pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuos and Sukkos. The Torah then returns to the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The Jewish people declare their commitment to do whatever G-d commands with the famous phrase “Everything G-d has said, we will do and we will listen.” The portion concludes with Moses’ ascending the mountain, where he will remain for forty days and forty nights to receive the rest of the Torah.

The book of Exodus begins by describing the gradually increasing enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. Pharaoh, fearing the population explosion of the Jews, initially hopes that backbreaking labor would stunt their rapid physical growth. When their birth rate continues to increase he orders the Jewish midwives to kill all baby boys. Moses is born, and when his mother is unable to keep him hidden from the Egyptian authorities any longer she places him in a basket and sends him down the Nile River. He is found by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the royal palace, even though she realizes he is a Hebrew. She names him Moshe (Moses) meaning “drawn from the water.” Years later as a grown man, Moses kills an Egyptian who he witnessed beating a Jew.

Moses flees to the land of Midian and marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and they have two sons. When Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s flock, he witnesses the “burning bush” on Chorev (Mt. Sinai) where G-d commands him to lead the Jewish people from Egypt to the land of
Israel, which G-d promised to their ancestors. Initially reluctant, Moses is shown three miracles to perform before the Jewish people to prove he was sent by G-d: Changing his staff into a snake, his healthy hand into a leprous one, and water into blood. Moses, accompanied by his brother Aaron, encounters an obstinate Pharaoh. The Egyptian king not only refuses their request for a three-day respite to worship G-d, but declares that the Jews must produce the same quota of bricks as before but without being given straw. The people complain to Moses and Aaron for making their situation worse, but G-d assures Moses that He will force Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave.

Jacob and his family returned from the house of Laban to the land of Israel, only to find Esau heading toward them with 400 men, ready for battle. After preparing his family for war and praying to G-d for help, Jacob attempts to appease his brother by sending him a gift of many animals. After his family crosses the river to await the meeting with Esau, Jacob is left alone for an all-night ‘confrontation’ with an angel disguised as a man. Although Jacob is victorious, he is left limping from a hip-dislocation. Rejoining his family, Jacob encounters Esau who accepts him with an apparent new-found brotherly love. Jacob and Esau part ways in peace. Another crisis arises when Jacob’s daughter Dinah is abducted and raped by Shechem, the prince of a town with the same name. Two of Jacob’s sons, outraged at the humiliation caused to their sister, trick the town’s residents into circumcising themselves on the condition that they would then be allowed to intermarry with Jacob’s family. Simeon and Levi (two sons of Jacob) then decimate the entire city and save Dinah. Later in the portion, G-d blesses Jacob and gives him the additional name, Israel. Soon after, Rachel dies while giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s twelfth son. Finally, Jacob returns home and is reunited with his father Isaac. The Torah portion concludes with a lengthy genealogy of Esau’s family.

Isaac and Rebecca pray to G-d for a child. Rebecca finally conceives, and after a difficult pregnancy gives birth to twins — Esau and Jacob. Their personality differences soon grow apparent, as Esau turns to hunting while Jacob is pure and wholesome, spending his time studying Torah. Returning from a hunting expedition, Esau finds Jacob cooking a pot of lentil soup. Jacob agrees to give his older brother a portion from the pot of soup in exchange for the spiritual birthright. Faced with a
severe famine, Isaac and family settle in Gerar (the land of the Philistines within Israel’s borders) rather than descend to Egypt as his father Abraham had done years before. After experiencing astonishing financial success, Isaac comes into continual conflict with King Avimelech over the wells which Isaac dug anew. This pattern of ‘success and persecution’ has repeated itself throughout Jewish history. Isaac decides to bless Esau as the firstborn. At Rebecca’s insistence, Jacob disguises himself as his older brother and receives the blessing of the firstborn (which rightfully belonged to
him). The Torah portion concludes with Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath for ‘stealing’ his blessing and escaping to Charan to stay with his uncle, Laban, where he is to find a wife.

Chayei Sarah begins with Sarah’s death at the age of 127 and Abraham’s search for a proper burial place which would be worthy of her greatness. Abraham is conned by Efron (a member of the Hittite nation who lived in the land of Israel) into paying an extremely large sum of money for her place of burial. Sarah is buried in M’arat HaMachpelah – the Tomb of the Patriarchs – in Hebron. Do you know who else is buried there? (answer: Adam & Eve, Isaac & Rebecca, Jacob & Leah ….in addition to Abraham and Sarah). Abraham sends his faithful servant Eliezer back to the old country (Aram Naharaim) to find a suitable wife for Isaac. Eliezer devises a plan by which he will find a modest, generous and kind girl fitting for his master’s son. Eliezer decides to stand by the town’s well, waiting for a girl to offer water to him and his camels. Suddenly Rebecca appears and exerts great effort to draw water for a stranger and his ten camels. She brings Eliezer to her father’s house, whereupon Abraham’s servant asks that Rebecca return with him to marry Isaac. She accepts, and they are married. The Torah states that “Isaac married Rebecca ….and he loved her.” This teaches us that true love comes after marriage, not before.

The parsha begins with Abraham’s incredible display of chesed (kindness) to three angels who appear as men. This, despite extreme discomfort from his recent bris milah (circumcision). The angels declare that Sarah will give birth to her first child at the age of 90 when Abraham would be 100. Later, Abraham pleads to G-d on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. However, the cities are soon destroyed, but not before the angels save Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from destruction. Later the parsha describes how Sarah is abducted by Avimelech, the king of Gerar, who did not realize she was married. G-d responds by striking him with a plague which prevents him from touching her. Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, and Abraham makes a huge celebration.

Sarah sees Ishmael (Abraham’s son from Hagar) as a menace to her own son’s spiritual well-being, and asks Abraham to expel Ishmael and Hagar.

The Torah portion concludes with the akeidah, Abraham’s tenth and final test, in which he shows his willingness to comply with G-d’s command to bring his beloved son Isaac as an offering.

Abraham was called by G-d to leave his homeland, his father’s house, and his position of status and prosperity to travel to the land that G-d would show him. Upon arrival with his wife Sarah and nephew Lot in the land of Israel, they discover it to be ravaged by a horrible famine. Traveling to descend to Egypt for a temporary stay, the immoral Egyptians immediately capture Sarah and take her to the Egyptian king. G-d responds by afflicting the king and his household with a debilitating plague until he releases her. Guess what the plague was?

Back in the land of Israel, Lot parts ways with Abraham, with Lot relocating to the fertile plains of Sodom. Abraham subsequently rescues the kidnapped Lot by miraculously defeating four kings and their armies. Through a Covenant, G-d promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Because she had no children, Sarah gives her maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a wife, and their son Yishmael is born. At the age of 99 Abraham circumcises himself, his son Yishmael, and the other male members of his household.

Parsha Noach

As a result of Mankind’s evil, G-d brings a flood to destroy every living creature. Only Noah, his family, and at least one pair of every animal species were spared. Trivia question: Do you know the name of Noah’s wife? (hint — it is NOT ‘Joan of Ark’) When the flood waters begin to recede after a lengthy deluge, Noah sends forth from the ark a raven and dove to determine whether the land has dried sufficiently so that they can leave the ark to once again resettle the earth. G-d promises that He will never again destroy all of Mankind by means of a flood, and He designates the rainbow as a sign for that eternal covenant. Noah plants a vineyard, drinks from its produce and becomes drunk. In his intoxicated state, he shamefully uncovers himself. While his son Ham dealt with his father inappropriately, Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Japeth, cover their father in a respectful manner. Generations pass and the world is repopulated. The people attempt to wage war against G-d by building the Tower of Babel. G-d responds by mixing up their languages into a ‘babble’, and dispersing them across the planet.