Tanakh – Torah (2) – Exodus

Question:  Please define:  Exodus.

Answer: Exodus is the name of the second book of the Torah and a reference to the historical liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

Question:  I have done a lot of studying from various sources during the times of the great Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, Ramses II. Do you think that the story of the Exodus is more symbolic than an actual historical event?  If a major mistake has been made, do you also think that it’s time to correct it?

Answer: There is historical evidence that there was a people in slavery in Egypt who left and moved to the land of Canaan.  Historians are divided as to exactly who this people were – what it the entire Israelite people, or just a portion, such as the tribe of Levi?

In any case, the Bible was not written to be a history book.  It is a book that presents myth, in the most technical sense of the word.  The technical definition of myth is a story that attempts to answer the most fundamental questions of human existence.  Myths are not defined objectively and historically as true or false.

The foundation of Judaism is the words of the Torah, although over time is has gone beyond a simple and literal understand of Bible.  There is no need to correct either Judaism or the Torah for being factually incorrect either in their presentation of the story of creation or in the story of the Exodus, as long as both stories continue to give meaning to our existence.

From: Marian Levi (name changed)

Question:  Was Moses circumcised and in Exodus why did Zippora circumcise Moses’ son?  And how did Zipporah convert?

Answer: Forgive me if I answer your questions out of order!

The story in Exodus 4:24 about Zipporah circumcising her son to save his life is very mysterious.  Its purpose, however, is to underscore the importance of the mitzvah of Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision, and the serious nature of its neglect.  It appears that Moses did not perform the mitzvah of circumcision for his son Gershom, and because of this, God was on the verge of killing Gershom.  Therefore, Zipporah took a flint knife and circumcised him, thus saving his life.

The root of the Hebrew word hatan (bridegroom) in Akkadian and Arabic has the meaning of “circumcise.”  Therefore, the obscure phrase, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me,” addressed to Gershom by Zipporah, might mean something like “You are now circumcised and protected for me by means of the blood.”

Source:  The Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary, Exodus, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna.

The Torah does not specifically that Moses was circumcised.  We do know from the beginning of Joshua that the generation of Israelites born in the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness were not circumcised, and need to be circumcised before the first Pesah in the land of Israel.  However, since Moses was born in Egypt, and the Israelites in Egypt did circumcise their sons, it seems logical that he was.  After all, his parents kept him for three months before being placed in the basket for the Pharaoh’s daughter to find.

Zipporah did not undergo any formal conversion ceremony.  First of all, before Sinai intermarriage was less of an issue, because since there was no Torah, Israelite religion was much simpler, with very few mitzvot.  Still, to be safe, Abraham and Isaac sent their children to marry their cousins, whom they knew would worship the same God.  We can only assume that Jacob’s sons tried to marry people who would recognize the one true God, and follow the mitzvot of the Israelite family.  Since in Joseph’s time, the entire family of Israel numbered only 70 people, marrying out of the family was almost a given.

Second, it was only after the time of Ezra (when Jews returned from exile and rebuilt of Temple) that Jews were giving up their Judaism as a result of intermarriage.  Therefore, Ezra commanded Jewish men to give up their non-Jewish wives, and called upon men and women to take only Jewish spouses.  It was around this time, I suspect, that formal conversion ceremonies developed, though the use of a mikvah as the required final element of conversion was codified in Rabbinic times.

Question:  I thank you so much for your excellent explanation of the above.  Now I have two more questions that I wonder if you would be kind enough to answer.  Being a Moreh my children have been asking about Moses’ wife Zipporah.  Was she black?  She was not Jewish but was she also black.  Of course at that time as you explained to me intermarriage was not a problem but what about marrying black?  That too was no problem?   My second question:  My Bet classes consist of ages 9 and l0 years old–do you think the explanation of the above that you gave me in reference to Gershom being circumcised by Zipporah is OK to relate to my students?  If not then how would you reword it to their age level. I do want to tell them about this passage in Exodus.  Third question:  Who circumcised Moses and Aaron and Joshua?  And where and when is this mentioned and explained?  I’m sorry if I’m asking you too many questions but you are so learned and I admire and respect your knowledge.

Answer: I will try to handle each of your questions.

1) I fail to understand why there should even be a question of whether marrying a person who is black (or Asian, Hispanic, or member of any other racial group) is a halakhic problem.  Teaching our children that they should not marry non-Jews (or should marry Jews) is good Jewish parenting.  Teaching children that they should not marry blacks (or should only marry a white person) is racism, pure and simple, and is unquestionably wrong.

2) This is a difficult story for 9-10 year old kids.  If you do read these passages of Exodus with your class, I would stress the importance of the mitzvah of circumcision; but I don’t think it is a very good passage from which to teach the mitzvah of Brit Milah.

3) I would assume that the fathers of Moses, Aaron, and Joshua circumcised them, but as I said in my original answer, the Torah does not specifically mention their circumcisions.

Question:  OK, now lets get back to my questions and not dodge around real issues that I have brought up.

1.   Was Zipporah black?  Yes or No?

2.   As to the circumcision: Why should I not read this portion from Exodus to 9 and l0 year old children?  What is it that we are trying to keep from them that they would not understand or be frightened of, or would not be able to handle?

3.   And who is even mentioning racism here?  But while we are on the subject lets discuss the Ethiopian Jews…..What is happening in Israel with assimilation?  They are Jewish …..and with quite beautiful features…….I’ve been told there are current racial sentiments in Israel?  How much do you know on this subject? (This is not part of any lesson plan with my Bet students.  Just for my own information)

Now to get back to my original question on the circumcision of Moses’ son Gershom.  Sorry if this sounds redundant but…..I like to recite Exodus as it is written to my students and not omit or hide anything …Why is this a taboo issue or problem to teach to this age group?                                                                                                                                          In your reply to me you seemed annoyed about this black issue – very interesting.  Let’s say you have a daughter or son and they come home with a serious love in their life. that they intend to marry – from Israel or college or work, or wherever.  Which would be better or more acceptable in the Jewish religion?  This love being black, Asian, Moslem, or Christian?  Suppose it was an Ethiopian Jew?  Is that acceptable?  Suppose they all are willing to convert except the Christian, does that make everything alright with a Jewish parent?  Suppose if it were a future Christian spouse that does not convert but the children will be brought up Jewish?   Is this better than all the above?  Yes, We both know what all parents hope for but if confronted with the above?   I suppose you may think I’m just trying to be cute here but if this question was brought up at a Jewish discussion group meeting (Chassidic) I wonder what the bottom-line answer would be?  Pun- ”There cannot be a black and white answer to this question.”  “ Nu, what else is this crazy Moreh going to ask you?”   Well, just to let you know the last issue is certainly not one I would discuss with any of my classes, even the 7th grade students.  I would not touch it!  How about you?  Can you honestly answer this question as a Jewish father?

Answer: I don’t know whether Zipporah was black or not.  You wrote, “ Of course at that time as you explained to me intermarriage was not a problem but what about marrying black?”  The implication of this is that you think there might be a problem marrying someone who is black.  You make the same implication in your latest question.  I think the real issue is why you care about Zipporah’s color, and why that makes the slightest difference.  Judaism forbids discrimination based on race – I don’t care whether it is with respect to hiring or marrying.  I would be thrilled if my children marrying Jewish women – I don’t care in the slightest whether they are black, Hispanic, Asian, or other.

Read Exodus with your students – all of it.  I never said anything other than this.  However, the full explanation of what it might mean might be beyond the intellectual level of a 9-10 year old.

Question:  Rabbi, if you are indeed a Rabbi at all.  Please disregard all my questions for the following reasons:

1.  I did not ask for you to specifically answer my original questions.  I don’t even know who you are?

2.  You are in my estimation too young and inexperienced personally in life to understand what I am even talking about or getting at.

3.  You are caught up in a racist “thing” which isn’t even my “bag”.  It’s laughable because you don’t have a clue?

4.  You probably are in your 20’s or early 30’s and your opinions and ideas are inexperienced and narrow.

5.  If you don’t know answers to specific questions, if you are a Rabbi on line than why try to answer them?

6.  If you do know what I am talking about” and racism is not it,” then you are obviously ignoring and “skirting” issues

a.  because you do not have the knowledge to do so; or

b. because you are avoiding issues you do not wish to discuss, then why reply at all? Reading knowledge is not everything.  You must get out from under the books and experience life personally. But thanks for your time and efforts.

Answer: I reviewed our correspondence, and I in fact did answer your questions.  It puzzles me how I went from providing an “excellent explanation” (a direct quote from your first response to me) to being accused of avoiding answering your questions.

You expressed a great deal of hostility in your most recent response, and have made numerous assumptions and accusations about my age, life experiences, and ordination.  If you would like to contact me again for any reason, please do so – but I encourage you to resubmit your questions to AskaRabbi to be answered again by another rabbi.

Question:  Rabbi Krishef,  You have a profile on the internet and you mention age.  Listen Bubblah, I’ve been around much longer than you in this marvelous world G-d created for us.  I asked in plain English was Zipporah black and you say what difference does it make??? I am asking you this question and since you are a Rabbi, I thought you might tell me where in the Chumesh it is mentioned.  If you don’t know the answer please don’t answer a question with a question.  I happen to teach in a shul that has quite a bit of intermarried couples and adopted children as well (black, Hispanic).  This is a legitimate question that the children have asked me and it is you who have been accusing — practically calling me a racist.  Far from it!  You are much too sensitive on this racist stuff, Rabbi David.  My next question since you mentioned racism, what do you know of the racism arising in Israel among the Ethiopian Jews and Sabra population?  You avoided the whole issue.  Is it that because you do not know current events in Israel or do not care to talk about it on the Internet?  If I were you I would once again reread what I asked of you.   Another question I asked you was, why is the mentioning in Shemot of Zipporah not a wise decision to discuss with 9 and l0 year olds?  Because a mother, who was not Jewish, wife of Moshe, wasn’t a moyel and circumcised her son with a flintstone?  Do you think the children would see this as wrong or cruel?   She saved her son’s life, do you think the students would think this as an act of God’s being partial or what was exactly your reason for advising avoidance of this happening.  Because it is hard to define this bride statement by Zipporah?  I want to read and explain it as it is and not avoid what is written to read.  If they are old enough to read the Chumesh then they are old enough to grasp meanings.  I wanted to know how to go into detail in an explanation on their level.  Detail!  That’s all for now.  If you care to respond fine, I’m all ears so to speak.

Answer: I told you in a previous message that I did not know the answer to the question about Zipporah’s race, that the Torah does not specify anything about Zipporah’s appearance.

I didn’t avoid the issue of racism in Israel – it wasn’t relevant to your original questions.  I know it exists, and I also know that it violates one of the most sacred precepts of Torah, the idea that we are all created in the image of God.

I didn’t say it wasn’t wise to discuss the Zipporah/circumcision story from Shemot with 9/10 year olds – I said that the story was very complicated, and they might not understand all of the nuances.  The “bridegroom of blood” statement for sure is far beyond them, since it involves a linguistic analysis of the origin of the words chatan damim as well as an understanding of blood as a fluid of protection.  For most 9 year olds, blood is a fluid of danger, pain, and harm, not of protection from harm.  In addition, I think that a story that teaches that God tried to kill a young child because he was not circumcised is problematic to teach young children.  It is very frightening.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach it, but it does mean that you should teach it at a more basic level.  You want details on how to teach it at an appropriate level, and this I cannot do.  I suggest that you consult with your principal or the rabbi of the school.  Since they know the kids, they are better equipped to make specific suggestions.

Again, I am willing to continue the discussion, but I would like to change the tone away from accusations, and towards a more civil discussion.  Questioning whether I am familiar with current events is totally out of line in such a discussion.

Question:  Rabbi Krishef, If the children already know about the blood smeared on the Israelites doors or doorposts, they already realize that blood was a symbol of protection from death. Right?  Your a Rabbi, how would you tell a Moreh in your school if she came to you and asked how to tell the students that G-d was going to kill Gershom if he wasn’t circumcized?  And – explain to me the whole story of the Bride, blood flowing and etc. in English since I am not fluent in the Hebrew language as of yet. Share your knowledge of the Torah with me here on this passage. Thank you.   As for:  We are all G-d’s children, G-d’s creations and are all created equal.  I agree with you but go tell it to the world around us.  What happened to us being “The Chosen People”?  Actually we are not all equal, some humans are more gifted than others, more complete than others and etc. more everything than others.

Answer: Marian Levi

Dear Ms. Levi;

Here is my brief, technical explanation of Exodus 4:24 (it was written in response to another question to AskaRabbi):

The story in Exodus 4:24 is very mysterious.  Its purpose, however, is to underscore the importance of the mitzvah of Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision, and the serious nature of its neglect.  It does not make sense for God to threaten to kill Moses, whom God has just sent to Egypt to be the instrument of liberation.  Therefore, the person who was threatened must have been Moses’ and Zipporah’s son.  Most Jewish commentaries identify him as Gershom, Moses’ and Zipporah’s first born.  It appears that Moses did not perform the mitzvah of circumcision for his son Gershom, and because of this, God was on the verge of killing Gershom.  Zipporah took a flint knife and circumcised him, thus saving his life.

The root of the Hebrew word “hatan” (bridegroom) in Akkadian and Arabic has the meaning of “circumcise.”  Therefore, the obscure phrase, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me,” addressed to Gershom by Zipporah, might mean something like “You are now circumcised and protected for me by means of the blood.”

Source:  The Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary, Exodus, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna.

With respect to teaching this story to young children:

Granted they know that blood is a protective device from the Pesah story, but in this story it is human blood which is shed for protection – a much more frightening story.  If I were to teach this to 10-year-old students, I would explain that it is a story about how the mitzvah of circumcision has been a central part of Judaism for many thousands of years, even before the God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  I would not go into the technical explanation I gave you above; I would save that for a H.S. Torah class.

With respect to human equality:

The message of chapter one of Genesis is that every human being – male and female – was created out of a single individual (a close reading of Genesis 1 shows that God created Adam male and female, at the same time).  In that sense, every human being was created equally in the image of God.  Therefore, every human being has inherent freedoms and rights that non-human animals do not have.  It is our responsibility as Jews to proclaim this message around the world.

There is a marvelous midrash that notes that a human sovereign mints thousands of coins from a single mold, and each of them are identical in every way.  The heavenly sovereign of sovereigns mints millions (billions) of human beings out of the same mold, and each one is unique.

With respect to the chosen people concept:

The concept of the chosen people does not mean that Jews are closer to God or more privileged than non-Jews.  It means that the Torah was given to all humanity through us, and therefore we have the obligation to observe all of its mitzvot more carefully than the rest of the world.

Question:  Dear Rabbi Krishef, that was the best explanation of the Torah portion in Shamot.  I thank you so much for “whew” clearing it up for me  so well….You helped me a great deal.  Todah I’m sorry if I drove you a bissel machuga. Ha…God Bless.

P.S. How did you find out my name?

Answer: In your first message to me, you signed your name.  I used it in my first responses, but in subsequent responses you neglected to sign your name so I stopped using it.  For the last note, I happened to look back at my first message to you, and recovered it.

I’m glad I helped, and I’m glad I have regained my ordination . . . ?

Question:  I never sign my name to anything on the computer, furthermore I looked at my previous mail to you in my email file cabinet and my name was not on any correspondence to you.  So Rabbi you got my name from  another source and that is not legal.  Names, addresses, telephone numbers and passwords are not to be given to anybody.

Answer: To ask your original question to AskaRabbi, you filled out an online form in the AskaRabbi forum.  It asked for your name.  You gave your name.  You were not required to include your name, you did so of your own free will.  I sent you a copy of this note to AskaRabbi quite a while ago.  I don’t understand why you don’t believe me, but I will send you another copy.  That note was forwarded to me.  The reason you did not find it in your email file cabinet is that such forms are not technically email, and therefore not saved in the file cabinet.

I resent your accusation that I did something illegal.  I have answered every one of your questions to the best of my ability.  It has taken quite a bit of time, for which I am not compensated.  I do it because I love spreading the word of Judaism.  I do not do it because I want to be accused of illegal activities.

I find it ironic that you wrote (or at least sent) your words on the ninth of Av on the Hebrew calendar (note that since Tisha B’Av is never commemorated on Shabbat, the observance was postponed until Sunday).  The rabbis of the Talmud teach that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred.  I urge you to reconsider the accusation you made against me.  Please consider my words carefully – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are approaching.

Question: Could I have been half asleep when I filled out that form?  I never give out my full name because it is or could be dangerous on the internet.  I do not recall doing this. Quite frankly it frightened me to see my name.  Even my relatives do not use my full name….Just don’t understand.  But I will be very careful in the future and if I erred you  for this I apologize.  Just cannot imagine I would have done this.

Answer: I accept your apology, conditional as it may be.  Trust me, the only way I got your name was from the AskaRabbi form that you filled out asking the original question.

Question:  I’d like to ask a question about the Passover story that has bothered me for a long time. The text in the Torah portion says that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and then Pharaoh would not let the Israelites leave Egypt. Why was it necessary for God to intervene in this way? Would it not have been enough (dayenu) for the Israelites to leave after the first plague ( or even before?) When you consider all of the suffering involved in the plagues, it does not seem like a merciful God who is involved here.

This brings me to a second (but related) question: it is hard for me to comprehend and relate to God as  jealous, stern, and demanding of us great and painful sacrifices (the Akedah being a powerful example). It is also hard for me to relate to the concept of God as looking out for the greater good while sacrificing the many who may stand in the way of that greater good (e.g. the idea that it was necessary for the Egyptians to endure the 10 plagues that the Israelites would have time and a common experience to help forge a nation). I much prefer to dwell on Kel rachum vchanun, erech apayim, rav chessed v’emet. But it is difficult to totally believe in this beneficent God when there is so much in our heritage and history that speaks to the demanding, fear-inspiring, and jealous aspects of God. I have thought about this for a long time… have you given these questions any consideration?

Answer: The idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart might seem troubling at first, but a close examination of the story should resolve some of your concerns.

First of all, Pharaoh showed himself to be cruel and inflexible even before the plagues began.  Moses and Aaron asked him to let the Israelites leave for three days to worship God in the desert, and showed him three signs that God was with them, but he refused and redoubled his cruelty when he forced the Israelites to collect their own straw for bricks.

Second, it was not until the sixth plague that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  After each of the first five, he was asked to release the Israelites, and refused; or he agreed, but changed his mind after the plague ended.

It was not until the second five plagues that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart “in order that I may display these My signs among [the Egyptians], and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and of your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am Adonai.” (Exodus10:1-2)

God wanted to ensure that the display of strength against the Egyptians would be effective and understood.  Did the Egyptians understand?  Apparently not, because even after the 10th plague and the release of the Israelites, Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after him.  How much did God need to harden Pharaoh’s heart then?  Not very much.

Did the Israelites understand the power of God?  Apparently not, because at the edge of the Reed Sea, they still did not have enough faith to believe that God would not let them die after taking them out of Egypt.  How much less faith would they have had if God had manipulated Pharaoh’s heart to LET THEM GO after only one plague?

Clearly, from reading the Tanakh, God is multi-faceted.  God is a beneficent, loving God, as the liturgy in our Siddur stresses.  But God is also protective when the Israelites are threatened and God is jealous or when the Israelites show signs of rejecting God.  The language of anger, jealously, and even love are human words, none of which really apply to God.  But the Torah is written in human language according to Rabbi Yishma’el, so that we can understand it.  And the only way we can relate to God is by, at times, assigning human characteristics to God.

You might enjoy reading a book called God:  A Biography, by Jack Miles.  His thesis is that God, as a character in the Tanakh, matures over time as humanity matures.  From this point of view, there was a time that God needed to be angry and jealous, but today God has matured and can be loving and kind.  Even the verse you quote from Exodus 34:6-7 gives evidence of this.  In Exodus, the verse ends with the words, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; YET God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and forth generation.”  In other words, payment for our sin is exacted from us AND from our children for the next three generations.  This is actually a kindness, because were God to exact the entire punishment from that Biblical generation, there would be no 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation.  When these verses are quoted later on in Joel 2:13, “For God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment,” God renounces punishment entirely when sin is forgiven.

So the idea that the God in which we believe has changed over time has support within the Tanakh – and if you choose to focus on the goodness, rather than the anger or the jealously, there is nothing wrong with that.  Realize, however, that God is complicated and beyond our understanding, so no matter how we understand God, it is only a partial comprehension.

Question:  In Exodus chapters 8 & 9, Moses is pleading with Pharaoh to let His people go and each time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. In chapter 9 there is a disease on the livestock and all Egyptian dies.  Next plague there are boils on all men and beasts.  My question is if all beasts died how could the boils affect the beasts?  Did the Egyptians take the Israelite’s beasts and then God sent boils on them?  My understanding is that during all the previous plagues the Israelites did not suffer from the plagues. Am I to understand this section correctly.  Can you please clarify this for me?

Answer: Since the Egyptian livestock had been killed by the plague of pestilence, the plague of boils must have struck the non-livestock animals (dogs, cats, etc.) owned by the Egyptians.  I think it is correct to assume that the Israelites were spared this plague, even though the Torah does not specifically say this.

Question:  The killing of firstborn children was widely viewed by ancient Hebrews as a sacrifice that signified religious obedience. Is this a true statement?

Answer: It is true that some people in the ancient world viewed child sacrifice as an acceptable form of worship.  The Bible talks about pagan cults which put their children to death by fire.  However, I don’t know how widespread it was, and as far as I know, it was never a common practice to sacrifice every first born son.

However, the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 can only be understood in a context in which the sacrifice of a child was a sign of ultimate obedience to God.  One of the powerful messages of the story is that God does not want child sacrifice.  Therefore, ancient Hebrews would never view the act of child sacrifice as desirable by God.

Question:  What is the origin of the prayer Mi Kamokha? There seems to be a discrepancy between different texts. Some appear to give credit to Miriam while others to Moses and others to all three siblings.

Answer: The verse Mi Kamokha comes from the Song at the Sea, Exodus 15:11.

The song is preceded by the verse 15:1, “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Adonai.”

The complicated issue of the authorship of the song comes from two verses that follows, 15:20-21, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.  And Miriam chanted for them,” and then the first verse of the song is repeated.  This has caused some Biblical scholars to posit that Miriam, not Moses, actually wrote the song.

I have never seen a source that attributes the song to all three.  In any case, it is one of those questions that can never be answered definitively.

Question:  Please name all 10 commandments.

Answer: The Ten Commandments are:

1) I am the Lord your God.

2) You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not made for yourself a graven image ? you shall not bow down to them and worship them.

3) You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

4) Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

5) Honor your father and mother.

6) You shall not murder.

7) You shall not commit adultery.

8)  You shall not steal.

9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house ? or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

Question:  I remember a Torah reading once about the specification to build something (a temple? an altar?) with unhewn stones, but I haven’t been able to find it again.  Where is it and why does the law specify this?  Is it because the building materials would thus come more directly from God?

Answer: Exodus 20:22 say, “If you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.”

The reason for this is probably because the metal instruments used to hew stone are similar to instruments of war.  An altar is supposed to be a symbol of peace and security, so coming into contact with implements of war would profane it.

Question: What does Judaism, the Tanakh, Talmud, etc., have to say about the topic revenge?  What is the modern day interpretation of the “Eye for an eye…” passage?

Answer: Since early Rabbinic times in the first century C.E. (and most certainly sometime prior to that), the Jewish interpretation of “an eye for an eye” has been “the worth of an eye” for an eye.  The guidelines that the Talmud developed for calculating damages are very similar to that which American law developed.  One who causes physical damage (short of death) must pay medical bills, actual loss of income from not being able to work, future loss of income in the case of permanent disability, and compensation for pain and suffering.

Rather than speak of revenge, which is explicitly prohibited by Leviticus 19:18, Judaism speaks of justice.  There are appropriate punishments for crime, and we are obligated to seek out those who have committed criminal acts and punish them.  This is one of the seven basic Noahide laws, which Jewish tradition believes are obligations on all the peoples of the entire world.

Question:  Could you please explain the spiritual meaning of THE ARK OF THE COVENANT?

Answer: Although I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “spiritual meaning,” I can tell you that according to Midrash, the Ark of the Covenant held both the original and the second set of the tablets of the 10 commandments from Mount Sinai.  It represented the covenant between God and Israel, and thus was carried with great reverence and stored in a place of honor in the Temple.

Question:  In Ki Tavo, the Israelites were asked to bring their “first fruits” to the priest.  Why the first fruits as differentiated from the best fruits?

Answer: The first of anything, human, animal, or vegetable is special, and belongs to God.  That is why we have pidyon haben, redemption of the firstborn.  We feel a special emotional attachment to the first, and to give it up to God (and, in the case of a first born son, to pay to get him back) acknowledges God’s unique role in the creation and sustenance of the world.

The best of something is subjective, whereas the first is objective.  We might argue about which tomato is the best color, the most plump, the best tasting.  How, then, can we be expected to give the best to God, if any one we choose might be disputed by others.  If we give the first, however, no one can disagree with us (unless we have lied, in which case we have lied to God).

By giving the first, we need to postpone our enjoyment of the produce until we have given proper thanks to God.  If we give the best, on the other hand, we can eat our fill from the early harvest knowing that we will give thanks to God later on when the best of the harvest is ready.