Hiding between the seemingly dry—and to the modern ear, somewhat esoteric—laws of Parashat Metzora is a fascinating insight into the nature of reality and human knowledge. The laws of the “plague-afflicted house” and the zav teach us about living in a world where certain things are in principle unmeasurable, and where observation can change reality.
After an adventurous and unattributable career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar now divides her time between researching trends in terrorism and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is an entertaining and sought-after public speaker, and lectures both in Israel and abroad.
Recent articles by Yael Shahar
Parashat Shminit: What was the crime of Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by divine fire while offering incense? It turns out that by comparing this incident with a later one, in which Moshe strikes a rock to bring forth water, we can learn a lot about miracles, holiness, and leadership.
In our parashah, the phrase: “Beit Yisrael”, the House of Israel appears for only the second time in the entire Torah. The first was in regard to the manna, where the Torah tells us that, not knowing what it was, “the House of Israel” called it “man”, that is, “what’s this?” Is there a common denominator in these two cases, or is this merely a coincidental quirk of style? I believe that not only is there something in common between these two appearances, but that the commonality has much to teach us.
This week’s parashah opens with an odd juxtaposition. Just before explaining to the Israelites how the Mishkan is to be constructed, Moshe pauses to exhort the people to sanctify the Shabbat. Why is the commandment of the Shabbat inserted here? The usual answer is that building the Mishkan—as important as it is—nevertheless does not over-ride the prohibition of work on Shabbat. But this only puts off the question: why are we are told to sanctify the Shabbat by ceasing all creative work on that day?
How could Moshe, who, more than any other figure, stands for Torah…how could he destroy the precious written record of the Covenant, inscribed by God’s own hand? Moreover, how is it that the sages of the Talmud praised Moshe’s actions and hailed him as a hero for breaking the tablets? The answer lies in the difference between the first set of tablets and the second.
our parasha heralds a political revolution in Israel, though this can be easy to miss among the details. We’re so used to thinking of Aharon and his sons as the “normal” kohanim of Israel that we come to take this from granted. But the tribe of Levi was not always set apart for Divine service, nor were the kohanim originally from that tribe.
It’s been noted that the Mishkan which the Israelites were commanded to build in the desert bears a striking resemblance to the royal military tent of Pharaoh Ramses II. Further, the Ark of the Covenant appears to have been modeled after an Egyptian sacred boat. What are we to make of these parallels? Are they merely a matter of historical curiosity or is there a deeper meaning?
This week’s parashah takes place in the midst of the dramatic ceremony of the Covenant at Sinai. The Israelites have accepted the terms and conditions and now stand poised to sign on the dotted line. Now comes the small print: the actual terms and conditions they are to keep. But there’s something very odd about the way the names of God come up in presenting these laws….
Winter is here, and even in Israel it’s decidedly nippy out! A great time to get cozy under the blankets with a cup of hot chocolate and a good book. Here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere (in more or less alphabetical order). Note that cover images link to the relevant affiliate-linked book […]
In the immediate aftermath of the exodus, the Israelites are faced with a series of tests designed to ascertain whether this newly constituted nation can escape their mental slavery in order to take on the mission that God has in mind for them. The results illustrate that it’s easier to take the people out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the people!
The Jewish youths who killed a mother of nine children are not “the settlers”. They are not “the other”. If only they were! But no, they are part of our own, a warning of what we can become—of what we must not become.
When Moshe is told to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites, he asks “What if they won’t believe me?” God’s answer is in the form of symbolic wonders, each of which involve things becoming something contrary to their nature: a healthy hand that becomes leprous, and a staff that becomes a snake. But why a snake? The choice of this particular animal is no coincidence. In fact, it’s the key to Moshe’s mission!
We often internalize Jewish tradition to such an extent that we act on it without conscious awareness, much the way we speak a language without consciously being aware of grammar. Is this a good thing? Is it better to perform an act in full awareness of what we’re doing and why? Or, is it better to internalize right actions to such an extent that we never even consider an alternative?
Here in Israel the first rains have fallen and the nights are getting cooler. A great time to get cozy under the covers with a glass of wine and a good book. Here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere.
While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the narrative portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
Why is Avraham depicted coming back from the Akeda alone? Where was Yitzhak? The sages of the Talmud offer a strange answer: he was off studying Torah with Shem, the favored son of Noah! What are we to make of this notion? Are we to conclude that Yitzhak put on a suit and hat and sat down in a classroom? Such a simplistic understanding misses the point entirely. The less literal interpretation is both richer and more meaningful.
It often surprises those who know Jews only as “the people of the Book” that the greater part of Jewish observance is not to be found in the written Torah at all. The Judaism we know today would be unrecognizable to those who stood at Sinai. There are those who argue that this process of continual re-interpretation has made the Judaism of our day less “authentic” than that of our ancestors’ time. And yet, if we believe that God has had a hand in our history, we must see the Torah as being continuously given via the same hand that puts these challenges in our path and requires us to adapt to them.
History shows that civilizations rise, reach their peak, and decline into oblivion. And yet, one small nation somehow managed to escape that fate. But how? This weak’s parashah offers a recipe to escape the cycle, but it is a drastic one indeed!
Teshuvah is, among other things, a process of reaching closure and healing. In wronging another, we dealt a blow to our relationships—our connection to ourselves, to our community or society, and to our relationship with God. Reaching closure means healing these wounds. But what if we can’t ask for forgiveness because those we wronged are no longer alive?
“Not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before the Eternal our God, and with those who are not here with us, this day.” Every generation is the Jewish people. And every generation must choose life or death: do we pass on our traditions to our children or do we let the Jewish people die with us?