Naso and Shavuot: Celebrating Teachers

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

Shavuot and parshat Naso contain wisdom on the role of teachers and leaders in Judaism and on the importance of engaging with students in learning.

Birkat Kohanim, which is in this week’s parsha, is one of the oldest recorded sections of Jewish prayer. The biblical verses contain a seeming contradiction. One verse suggests that the kohanim have the power to bless the people: “This is how you are to bless Bnei Yisrael…” However, it also states: “put My (God’s) name on Bnei Yisrael, and I (God) will bless them.” Rashbam explains that God is the source of blessings and the Kohanim only offer up prayer. Rav Hirsch teaches that the kohanim are an instrument through which the brachot are given. Sefer Hachinuch however, explains that the Kohanim are the vehicle through which the bracha is transferred from God to the people. Moreover, the people have a role as well – to desire the brachot. According to this, while God ultimately bestows the brachot, everyone has a role to play in causing the brachot to flow. 

There is a similar discussion around the giving of the aseret ha-dibrot, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The Torah states that God said “all these words” to Israel. However, the Talmud notes that only the first two are in first person, indicating only they were said directly to Israel by God, the other eight were said through Moshe. Furthermore, Rambam lists as one of the thirteen principles of faith that the Torah is from heaven and was given through Moshe. Finally, Rabbi Akiva emphasizes that the people said “yes, yes,” as affirmation of acceptance of each commandment. Moshe and the people were involved in giving/receiving the Torah.

The ambiguity, in both cases, hints at what makes an extraordinary educator and leader. Moshe and the kohanim provide a model of balancing teaching and inspiring students while empowering each individual to find personal connection to Torah and God’s brachot. Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom –Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Yitro: Are the Ten Commandments Special?

In parshat Yitro we receive the Ten Commandments, which are thought of as the basis of Torah. Some commentaries teach that all ten were spoken directly by God to the people of Israel. Moreover, they were written on luchot (tablets). Given their foundational status, why don’t the aseret ha-dibrot feature more prominently in tefilla and how do they continue to resonate in our world today? 

In fact, the Ten Commandments were originally said in daily prayer. According to Mishna Tamid, the kohanim recited certain prayers in the mikdash, including Shema and aseret ha-dibrot. However, explains the Talmud Yerushalmi, they were removed due to the “arguments of the heretics,” who claimed that “only these were given to Moshe at Sinai,” not the rest of Torah. Even though various rabbis tried to re-insert them into daily tefilla, the Talmudic Sages rejected these attempts to refute the claims of the heretics. 

Over time, Jews found ways to promote the Ten Commandments in tefilla, while adhering to the decree of the Sages. Yerushalmi Berakhot teaches that the aseret ha-dibrot – originally said alongside Shema – are actually contained within the words of Shema. The Rema states that they may be said by an individual but not as part of communal tefilla. Many communities developed the (once debated) custom to stand during the Torah reading when the Ten Commandments are read publicly. 

This process highlights that the Ten Commandments were treasured by the Jewish people throughout history, representative of our relationship with God and Torah’s contribution to the world. They encapsulate and express the deep continuum between interpersonal mitzvot and mitzvot between man and God. This week in particular, after the devastating earthquake, the dibrot are a reminder that each life lost was created in the image of God and that the praiseworthy efforts to aid the suffering is a mitzvah in the eyes of God and humanity. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

** photo by IDF spokesperson’s unit משלחת צה״ל “ענפי זית” בטורקיה 🇹🇷🇮🇱