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Though they both speak about korbanot, sacrifices, there is a sharp distinction between last week’s Torah reading, Vayikra, and this week’s Tzav. Rashi explains that the word Vayikra is a term of endearment, as evidenced by the fact that the angels use it when they begin their praises of G-d, as it says “Vayikra Ze El Ze”, “They called one to another” (Yishayah 6: 3. We also recite the phrase daily in the Kedushaprayer, imitating the angels’ praise of G-d). On the other hand, “Tzav” means “command”, and carries with it connotations of inducing and encouraging someone to perform an action that they are not keen to do.
The English (Greek) name for this book of the Bible is Leviticus, which is appropriate because the book is predominantly about the Temple services, and the role of the Levites. In Hebrew, however, the name of both the book, and this first Torah reading is Vayikra, meaning “He called”. This name is taken from the first word, but how is it appropriate to the content of Leviticus?
Rashi’s first comment on this book is: “Each time that G-d spoke to or commanded Moshe, He preceded it by calling to him, which is a form of affection ....”. This is contrasted to the way in which G-d appeared to Bilam, the non-Jewish prophet, with the phrase “Vayikar” (Numbers 23; 4), which means “happened upon”. G-d did not want to enter into the same relationship with Bilam that he had with Moshe, and with later Jewish prophets. Why does the Torah single out this time to tell us that G-d called to Moshe?
The Ba’al HaTurim (commentary on Exodus 40; 33) points out the seemingly redundant repetition of the phrase, “As G-d commanded Moshe” after each item for the Mishkan was constructed. He explains that as a reward for Moshe’s pleading for the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf, when he said, “Please erase me from your book”, G-d constantly repeats Moshe’s name in this portion.
The Ba’al HaTurim notes further that the phrase “As G-d commanded Moshe” appears eighteen times in this portion, corresponding to the eighteen blessings of the weekday Amida. The phrase, “As G-d commanded, so they did” appears once, and corresponds to the additional nineteenth blessing against heretics. How are these three ideas - Moshe’s pleading, the Amida, and the construction of the Mishkan - related?
Vayakhel is a Parsha dealing with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). It begins, however, with three verses about observing Shabbat. The Rabbis learn from this juxtaposition that the activities which are prohibited on the Sabbath are those activities that were necessary to construct the Mishkan. They also learn from this that keeping Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Mishkan. Despite the importance of the work, the Jews in the desert were not permitted to desecrate Shabbat in order to complete it quicker.
This is the only Torah reading from the beginning of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy that does not contain the name of Moshe. Even though G-d is speaking to him throughout the Parsha, nowhere does it explicitly state his name. Many explanations have been given for this; here is one possibility.
When Moshe first encounters G-d at the Burning Bush, he argues that he is not worthy to lead the Jewish people out of slavery, and insists that his elder brother Aharon would be better suited to the task. Our tradition tells us that this dialogue between Moshe and G-d lasted for an entire week, until finally “G-d’s anger burned against Moshe [and He said] ‘Behold Aharon the Levi is your brother’ ... ‘When he sees you his heart will be glad’...” (Shemos 4;14). The Sages comment on this verse,
Last week’s Torah reading ended with Moshe ascending Mount Sinai to receive the entirety of the Torah from G-d. Chronologically, the next thing that should occur in the Torah is the building of the Golden Calf. This takes place forty days later, and forces Moshe to make a hasty descent with the two tablets of stone, and smash them. But the Torah makes us wait another two weeks, until Ki Tissa, before continuing with the plot. In between we have what seems like a digression, detailing the plans for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all of its ornaments and utensils. Obviously the Torah was not compiled in a haphazard, random fashion, so why did G-d feel that it was most appropriate to place these two portions here?
Looking at this week’s Torah reading, one would think that the Jewish Nation was made up primarily of murderers, thieves, violent criminals and other social miscreants. Why else would the Torah need to spend so much time enumerating all of the different types of crimes and their punishments? Not only the Written Torah, but also the Oral Law contains detailed discussions of criminal offences and legalities. One complete Order of the Mishna, one sixth of the Oral Law, is entitled Nezikin (damages) and deals with the power of the Beis Din (the courts) to punish infringements of the laws.
Yet it is common knowledge that, far from being the violent criminals portrayed through this legislation, the Jews have consistently been seen to be moral, just and honest. The Western World owes Judaism a huge debt for introducing many concepts that now form the basis of our society.
“And Yisro heard...” (Shemos 18; 1). Rashi comments, “What did he hear that brought him [from Midyan to the desert]? The splitting of the Reed Sea and the war with Amalek”. Hearing of these two events acted as the catalyst which made Yisro leave the comforts of Midyan to join the Israelites in the desert. Surely such miracles would have been reported by every news agency in the known world, but nobody else came to join them. Why does the Torah stress that Yisro heard about these events? Why is this an appropriate introduction to the main part of our portion, the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments?
The splitting of the Reed Sea was one of the most direct and open miracles in the history of the world. The Talmud relates that even the lowest person crossing through the sea saw more of the spiritual realms than the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) who received one of the highest visions of G-d’s throne of Glory. The verse says “This is my G-d” (15; 2), meaning that each person was able to physically point to G-d and say “Here He is!”. Yet only a few chapters later the Torah says about these same people who have just seen G-d “That they tried G-d, saying ‘Is G-d in our midst or not?’”. How could they have forgotten in such a short space of time the miracles that G-d had performed for them?
In our Torah portion Yosef brings his two sons to his father for a blessing. “Yosef took the two boys. He placed Efraim to his right, (to Yisrael’s left), and Menashe to his left, (Yisrael’s right). … Yisrael reached out with his right hand and placed it on Efraim’s head, thought he was the younger. He placed his left hand on Menashe’s head. He deliberately crossed his hands, even though Menashe was the firstborn. … He too will attain greatness. But his younger brother will become even greater....” (Genesis 48; 13-14).
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