Gut Shabbos, everyone!

When Rabbi Perton asked me to speak this Shabbat morning, I was quite reluctant, mainly because this week’s parsha is one of the most complicated portions in the entire Torah. The reason is that it has a very intricate narrative – in fact, there is no narrative to speak – but because of its subject: the affliction of tzara’at. Commonly known as “Biblical leprosy”, tzara’at is not even an actual medical disease, but rather – as our Sages explain – a physical manifestation of the spiritual disease, a divine sign and punishment for people who speak lashon harah, gossiping and carrying rumors about others.

But regardless of the actual nature of tzara’at, this week’s parsha is very difficult, simply because we’re not accustomed to talk about such matters. We don’t experience tzara’at nowadays, and we probably are not even qualified anymore to recognize its symptoms. So, honestly, Parshat Tazria is definitely not on my Fave5 list.

But Rabbi Perton pointed out that today is also Rosh Chodesh Nisan. And it is also Shabbat Parashat HaChodesh, for which we just finished reading an Haftarah from the Book of Yechezkel (Ezekiel). So, between a quite difficult parsha and an Haftarah that is all about offerings and sacrifices (holy barbeque, as I call them) – there should be something to talk about, right?

Well, let’s talk a bit about this Book of Ezekiel, from which our Haftarah is taken…

From the whole of the Tanakh, this book is probably the one that attracts most attention. Maybe only the prophecies of Yeshayahu (Isaia) could come close to challenging that spot… Ezekiel is the prophet who described the merkavah, the holy celestial chariot. He is the one who had the famous vision about the valley of the dry bones and their resurrection at the hand of G-d. Ezekiel speaks extensively about the Temple and its rituals, he admonishes Israel and the nations, and he talks about the Messianic Era. All and all, the book is interesting and compelling.

But what we read in our Haftarah this morning is far from exciting. There are no holy messages given by G-d, no dire warnings, no celestial visions. We simply have a detailed description on the offerings for Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month in the Hebrew calendar. We learn about the minutiae of those korbanot, about the animals used, the exact locations of the sacrifices and the like.

So, what’s so special about this Haftarah after all?

There is a rather inconspicuous verse in chapter 45, three verses into our Haftarah, which is literally worth all the trouble! Listen to this:

כֹּה־אָמַר֮ ה’ א-לקים בָּֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֔דֶשׁ תִּקַּ֥ח פַּר־בֶּן־בָּקָ֖ר תָּמִ֑ים וְחִטֵּאתָ֖ אֶת־הַמִּקְדָּֽשׁ׃ – Thus said the L-ord G-d: On the first day of the first month, you shall take a bull of the herd without blemish, and you shall cleanse the Sanctuary. – Ezekiel 45:18

Wait, what? This is the verse? A list of animals to be used as offerings on Rosh Chodesh? What’s all the excitement about?

Well, believe it or not, this verse was – among a few others – the reason for which Our Sages were actually debating whether the entire Book of Ezekiel, with all its prophecies, should or should not be included in the Tanakh! Let me say that again: a list of animals offered on Rosh Chodesh could have been the downfall of Ezekiel and all his prophecies.

How so? Because there is another verse, this time in the Torah, in Bamidbar (Numbers) 28:11, where we are told the following:

וּבְרָאשֵׁי֙ חָדְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ עֹלָ֖ה לַה’ פָּרִ֨ים בְּנֵֽי־בָקָ֤ר שְׁנַ֙יִם֙ וְאַ֣יִל אֶחָ֔ד כְּבָשִׂ֧ים בְּנֵי־שָׁנָ֛ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה תְּמִימִֽם׃ – On your new moons you shall present a burnt offering to the L-ord: two bulls of the herd, one ram, and seven yearling lambs, without blemish. – Numbers 28:11

Have you noticed the differences?

  1. The Torah mentions an olah (a burnt- or elevation-offering), while Ezekiel talks about a chatat (a sin- or, more precisely here, a sin-cleansing offering).
  2. The Torah mentions two bulls, one ram and seven lambs to be offered in the ritual, while Ezekiel only mentions one animal: a bull.
  3. And by the way, the only other instance in our tradition where only one animal was offered as a chatat (a sin offering) is in the Yom Kippur service, and in that case the animal is a seir, a male-goat, and not a bull.

So, the Rabbis – with their super keen attention to detail – were asking themselves: how come we have a verse in Ezekiel that (seemingly) contradicts the Torah? Isn’t there a rule that if a prophet claims to have had a vision in which even one letter of the Torah is changed, one law or one idea, that person is labeled a false prophet and is liable to receive the death penalty? Shouldn’t we, based on that, ban the entire Book of Ezekiel and never speak of it again? Shouldn’t we consider it heresy, false prophecy, on the account of such blatant contradiction?

In the Gemarah, Tractate Menachot 45a, at the end of a lengthy discussion regarding the discrepancies (plural, as this verse is not the only one) between the Book of Ezekiel and the Torah, we find the following resolution, as a statement made by Rabbi Yehuda:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: That man is remembered for good, and Ḥanina ben Ḥizkiyya is his name. As were it not for him, the book of Ezekiel would have been suppressed and not included in the biblical canon, because various details of its contents appear to contradict statements of the Torah. What did Ḥanina ben Ḥizkiyya do? He brought up to his attic three hundred jugs of oil for light so that he could study even at night, and he sat isolated in the attic and did not move from there until he homiletically interpreted all of those verses in the book of Ezekiel that seemed to contradict verses in the Torah. – Menachot 45a

Now, let’s pause and think about it for a moment… One man, isolated in an attic somewhere in Babylon, saved the entire Book of Ezekiel from damnation and oblivion! One man, with 300 jugs of oil – which presumably took quite a bit of time to burn – took the time and was curious and dedicated enough to embark on such an enterprise to save our prophecies! One man, through his sheer love of Torah and tradition, gave us back the Book of Ezekiel, and enabled us to read from it today in our Haftarah!

How this man managed to reconcile every individual verse with its Torah counterpart is beyond the scope of this drasha. Suffice it to say that what he did was probably not easy at all. And yet he was not alone! Others in the course of history, more famous that Ḥanina ben Ḥizkiyya, have done similarly. I’m sure that none of those enterprises were a walk in the park. In fact, I’m sure that they were very hard, demanding and time consuming.

Rashi for example, with his brilliant mind and attention to detail, very often engages in this type of interpretation in his commentaries. He also has an extensive commentary on our Haftarah, in which he reconciles – through various means – each problematic verse with its Torah counterpart.

Radak, Rav David Kimchi, a French 12th century Rabbi, explains that our Haftarah refers to the Third Temple, while the verses in Bamidbar talk about the Temples that once stood in Jerusalem. He points out that history showed there were many differences even between the First and the Second Temple: in the way the objects were arranged, their content, or in the way the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) interacted with the nation. So – Radak concludes – it’s not too far fetched to assume that the Third Temple, in the time of Mashiach, will also have its particularities, one of which is mentioned here by Ezekiel.

The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, a 19th century Russian Rabbi, suggests a different way to reconcile the verses. He explains that the offerings mentioned by Ezekiel refer specifically to the ritual of inauguration of the Temple, and not to the day-by-day – or in this case month-by-month – ritual. In other words, the inauguration ritual mentioned by Ezekiel is a cleansing one, a chatat offering of one bull, brought on the Rosh Chodesh Nisan of the very first year of Temple activity. However, during all the other Roshei Chodashim – Malbim explains – we used to offer more animals (2 bulls, 1 ram, 7 lambs) as an olah, an elevation-offering.

As you can see, the explanations abund and are quite diverse. What they all have in common though, are a few characteristics from which we can all learn. Even today, when the Temple is no longer standing and korbanot are no longer brought, we can appreciate notions such as perseverance, respect, diversity and a love of learning.

Perseverance – such as the one that inspired Ḥanina ben Ḥizkiyya to go up into the attic with 300 jugs of lighting oil, and to not leave until all was explained.

Respect – because all these commentators (and many others in the course of history) cherished our tradition and scriptures, and did not feel the right response to discrepancy and contradiction was to just throw it away. They studied it, explained it, reinterpreted it, they provided context and assigned meaning, in order to make our holy texts intelligible and relevant. And they had a great respect for previous interpretation also, for what their forefathers thought, for what they discovered in the course of their own learning. Yes, they challenged every word the text itself and of their predecessors’ commentaries, but they respected it nevertheless, and in doing such, they kept the Jewish tradition alive.

Diversity – because all these commentators understood and deeply felt that ”eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim”, that the word of G-d indeed has multiple meanings, each important in its own way, each meaningful, each adding to the whole, each meant to teach and to inspire.

And love of learning – because that was the motivation for the whole enterprise: to learn, to go up in spirituality, to pass on the knowledge, lehagdil Torah ve’yadir, to grow and beautify our [understanding] of the Torah.

* * *

Today it is Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Two more weeks and we’ll be celebrating Pesach, the Holiday of our Freedom. And what is Pesach all about? What do we do at the Seder?

We become part of that beautiful chain of our Jewish tradition. We learn together, and sing, and play, and teach our children. We inspire them. We stay up by the light of our chandeliers (and not our oil lamps), long into the night, to reenact the moment when we became a nation. We study carefully the details of the Haggadah, their symbolism and their meaning. We strive to understand the words of the four sons, we internalize the calls for spiritual reawakening by Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, we open the door for Elijah the prophet, and we recall in Dayenu the miracles Hashem did for us and for our forefathers.

Why do we do all that?

For the same reasons the Book of Ezekiel was saved: because we’re dedicated; because we have respect for our tradition; because we love to come up with diverse answers which often lead to even more diverse questions; and because – both as individual and as a nation – we love to learn.

Because this is our Torah, our faith, and our way of life. Because we are Jews, a special nation with a special destiny and a special relationship to the Almighty. Because we don’t take things for granted. Because we love to know, and to pass on that knowledge to our children. Because we care deeply for our tradition, for its books and symbols and meanings, and because we don’t ever want to give them up.

May you all have a wonderful Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Nisan, and a beautiful and meaningful Seder Pesach with your families!

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!

Delivered at Beth Zion Congregation, Montreal
April 7, 2019 – Shabbat Parashat Hachodesh

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