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March 20, 2014

Parshat Shemini: Foreign Fire

By Jessica G.  ‘14

In Parshat Shmini, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu died on account of the “foreign fire” they caused in their sacrifice to God. Where did this foreign fire come from, and why were Nadav and Avihu punished on account of it? Many meforshim attempt to answer this question, but it’s very surprising how many of them don’t view this strange fire as Nadav and Avihu’s sin. Why would these meforshim gloss over the event of the fire and its strange wording (“esh zara”)? Why is it that instead of interpreting this phrase, so many rabbinic scholars almost completely ignore it? Let us explore some of these commentaries and their logic.

Rashi claims that the sin had nothing to do with the fire at all; rather, Aaron’s sons had entered the sanctuary after having drunk wine. Rashi’s proof for this answer is that after Nadav and Avihu’s death, Bnei Yisrael are warned not to do this very thing. However, a complication arises from this interpretation: how could Nadav and Avihu have been punished for violating a commandment that wasn’t yet issued? Rashi anticipates this question and brings an analogy about a king’s faithful attendant. In the analogy, when this attendant stands at a tavern entrance, the king kills him, and then says to his replacement, “do not linger at taverns.” This story defends Rashi’s interpretation of Nadav and Avihu’s punishment because it introduces the idea of death as an example: a lesson to Bnei Yisrael about the importance of not entering the sanctuary intoxicated.

Another meforash, Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, also dismisses the idea of a “foreign fire.” Instead, he views the fact that Nadav and Avihu brought their own utensils to the temple as their sin. The day that Nadav and Avihu brought this sacrifice was the day that Hashem was supposed to appear to the nation, a day of Jewish unity. But Nadav and Avihu used their own tools to construct their own fire, and their timing undermined the significance of the day the Jewish nation as a whole was supposed to join with Hashem. Thus it wasn’t Nadav and Avihu’s fire that was their sin: it was what they used to build it, and the untimeliness of that choice.

The Rashbam, too, views Nadav and Avihu’s timing as their most important sin. And like Rav Hirsch, he claims that their action detracted from the importance of God’s interaction with Bnei Yisrael. But he takes a slightly different approach than Rav Hirsch: he says that that day was not the correct day to make a man-made fire. The fire was not foreign AT ALL, Rashbam claims (in fact, it was taken from the mizbeach), but Nadav and Avihu made their own korban, and that day it lessened the splendor of God’s miraculous appearance before the people.

All of these meforshim dismiss the importance of the esh zara in Nadav and Avihu’s sin, when the Torah clearly emphasizes it as an important element in their sinning process. But perhaps these meforshim together make a point. It wasn’t just one person that didn’t view the fire as integral to the sin; it was multiple people, all thinking in the same way. But what logic drove them to push emphasis away from the fire? What do all of these commentaries have in common?

All of these commentaries put God’s motives first. In Rashi’s claim that Nadav and Avihu had drunk before entering the sanctuary, their death was less of a punishment than a lesson to  Bnei Yisrael. This lesson was a small part of God’s plan to teach Bnei Yisrael the right way to live in the most effective way possible. Rav Hirsch and Rashbam follow the same logic. They agree that Nadav and Avihu’s death was a punishment for detracting from the importance of the day. God wanted to keep the time of his interaction with Bnei Yisrael special and holy, and Nadav and Avihu got in the way. They died in punishment, but for a good cause: so that God could display His glory to the nation.

One can draw an important lesson from these interpretations of Nadav and Avihu’s sin. Though in pshat this “esh zara” might have been important in God’s killing of Aaron’s sons, they also died because they were part of something bigger. God has His motives for everything, and sometimes He has to make compromises in order to carry out plans in His broad scheme of human history. Nadav and Avihu’s death was a reminder of who’s boss.

This dvar Torah was prepared by learning the parsha with Rashim, as well as for Rav Hirsch and Rashbam


March 20, 2014

by Rebecca M. (Grade 5)

In this week’s parashah, we are given the laws of keeping kosher, a very important mitzvah. The question is why does the Torah give us the laws of kashrut in this parashah at this time?

In the last two parashiot, the Torah teaches us about the laws of korbanot—sacrifices. We learn about the different kinds of korbanot, who had to bring them, what should be done with them and why each was brought. Next, we learn how Aharon and his sons became priests. Then, something terrible happens: Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, died.  There are many opinions about why they died but it is clear that they did not listen to the rules that God had just given them. Right after Aharon and his other sons finish mourning the loss of Nadav and Avihu, the Torah talks about kashrut. Why now? Is this not a sad time?

At the beginning of the school year on September 10, Caitlin Langone, a young woman, spoke to us about her 9/11 story. Her father was a policeman who died in the Twin Towers. After she mourned his death, she knew that she could not sit around all day and cry about losing her father. She had to do something; that is what her father would have wanted. She became a trainer for service dogs because her father had loved dogs and it was a way to help other people.

Normally, when God gives a commandment to Moshe to give to the Jewish people, the Torah says דבר/speak — Moshe speaks. This time, the Torah uses the verb דברו, which means “they spoke.”  Rashi notes that the speaker is not just Moshe and not just Moshe and Aharon, but Moshe, Aharon and Elazar and Itamar, Aharon’s two other sons. All of the mourners were quiet when Nadav and Avihu died. They accepted God’s decision and did not complain.  God rewarded Aharon, Elazar and Itamar for their acceptance of His judgment by having them teach the laws of kashrut to the Jewish people.

We learn from Moshe, Aharon, Elazar, Itamar, and Caitlan that although it is very difficult to lose someone or go through a hard time, we must remember that being alive is a great gift. We need to use that gift to become closer with God by doing mitzvot and improving the world we live in. I think the reason kashrut is taught right after Nadav and Avihu died is because after a hard time, we look for a way to get closer to God.  Kashrut is something we deal with all the time, every time we eat.  It forces us to think about God and make God a part of our everyday life.

Shabbat Shalom!


March 13, 2014

by Brianna R. (Grade 8)

In this week’s parashah, Moshe explained to Aharon and his sons the kohanim how they will fulfill their duties regarding the korbanot (sacrifices). Although it was mentioned in last week’s parashah, the Torah again describes five of the korbanot that the Jews sacrificed to emphasize the importance of this mitzvah. One of their duties was that after the korbanot were brought, the kohanim had to clear the ashes from the mizbeach (altar) to a place outside the camp area. Additionally, they had to keep the fire burning all day by continuously adding more wood.

One of the categories of sacrifices was the korban shelamim, the peace offering. A subsidiary korban in this category was the korban todah. It was offered for thanksgiving, such as when one survived a dangerous situation like recovering from a serious illness.

This korban was different from most of the others because it was not given after a person sinned or did something wrong unintentionally. Its meat could be eaten not only by the kohanim, but by the person who offered it and his family as well. Other than thanking God, what was its goal?

One answer is that whoever brought this korban brought peace to the world. This is clear because the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, and shelamim have the same Hebrew root. This korban created a community due to the fact that people had to share it with others.

And so Parashat Tzav teaches us to derive happiness from what we share and not from what we own. Any person who recognizes the good in his or her life will easily realize how much they have to share with others, and share not only their possessions but their happiness.

Shabbat Shalom

Beit Cafe Next Wednesday 3/19

March 11, 2014

Join us for an evening of Israeli culture…..
Savor the tastes of the Mediterranean…..
Revel in the language and music of Israel…..
Thrill to the voice of new Israeli Superstar, EDAN TAMLER (former Ramaz student!)

Wednesday, March 19
7:00 pm
Ramaz Upper School

In the Morris & Ida Newman Educational Center
Kaufman Auditorium – 60 East 78th Street, NYC

In tribute and memoriam to ARIK EINSTEIN

“Mr. Einstein symbolized the land of Israel that is beautiful, true and pure.”
-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Tickets: $10 in advance / $15 at the door. For advance reservations, send check to Joseph Sambolin at the Ramaz Upper School, 60 East 78th Street, NY, NY 10075.

For information contact Ms. Caroll Goldberg: or 212-774-8000 x7350.

Proceeds from Beit Café go to ELEM, a non-profit organization that provides a continuum of care for youth at various levels of risk throughout Israel.

Made possible by the Dr. Noam Shudofsky Endowment for Israel Programs and Zionist Studies.

Parents Council Spring Auction 3/12

March 6, 2014

It’s that time of year… The Ramaz Parents Council Spring Auction!

The Parents Council, auction chairs, and committee members have been very busy planning a great event to benefit our students. There will be fabulous food and prizes, so please join us in the Upper School Auditorium next Wednesday, March 12, at 7:00 pm.

The Online Auction opened this morning!

  • Visit and click “Register to Bid”.
  • Use a fun alias or “USERNAME” rather than your own name, since it goes public as you bid.
  • Shop often and enjoy!
  • You will receive bid alerts throughout the auction letting you know your bid status.
  • Your credit card will be charged ONLY if you are the highest bidder and winner.
  • If you win an item, you will receive instructions post-auction regarding receipt of your prize.

View the gorgeous online catalog of fabulous prize packages that will be “auctioned off” in our Chinese Auction the evening of March 12! The “Chinese Auction” is an “event-only” raffle-based auction format. Coupons are purchased and dropped into a box of the prize the bidder hopes to win. Winners will be drawn from each box at the end of the evening. Chinese Auction prizes will only be available to win during the March 12th event.

Advance event registration packages get bonus Chinese Auction tickets — please visit to RSVP by March 11. Ramaz faculty and staff receive complimentary admission!


Torat MS: Vayikra

March 6, 2014

By Noah A. (Grade 8) 

Overall, in this week’s parashah, we learn about the different types of korbanot or sacrifices and their specific corresponding rules.  The topic is very complex and the descriptions below offer some general information:

  • The korban olah or burnt offering was brought twice daily. Its flesh was totally consumed in fire but the skins were given to the kohanim.
  • A portion of the korban shelamim or peace offering, was eaten by the person who brought the sacrifice and some parts were given to kohanim.
  • The korban chatat or sin offering was brought to atone for sins committed by the high priest, the king, the entire Jewish community, or a regular Jew.
  • The korban asham or guilt offering was brought by a person for specific categories of sins, including a case of doubt as to whether he had broken the rules.

Why is it so complicated to have a relationship with God? What is the need for all of the rules for korbanot?  I think that all of these rules cause the Jewish people to learn more Torah, and the study of Torah brings us closer to God.

Even when one commits a sin, there is a way to make up for it.   Later in the Talmud (in Berachot) we learn that the prayer times are related to the korbanot, so we connect with God in the morning, afternoon, and at night.  Even though we don’t see God, we can still bond and communicate with Him.

Communication with God, whether it is through prayer, Torah, or sacrifices, is the foundation for Judaism, and is the reason why the Jewish people have stayed together even through the Diaspora.

Shabbat Shalom.

Upper School Dvar Torah: Pekudei

February 27, 2014

by Esther Malka Issever ’14

בֶּקַע, לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת, מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל, בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ–לְכֹל הָעֹבֵר עַל-הַפְּקֻדִים,
מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, לְשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים, וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וַחֲמִשִּׁים.

“A beka a head, that is, half a shekel, after the shekel of the sanctuary,
for every one that passed over to them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward,
for six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men.”

Exodus: 38: 26

Parashat Pekudei begins with an account of all fifteen different materials donated by B’nei Yisrael for the building of the Mishkan. The donations included gold,  silver, copper, and various other textiles.

For fourteen of fifteen materials, each individual gave according to his ability. Yet for the half shekel, every single person was required to give the same amount. Rashi (Exodus:30:16) states that the half shekel was used to make the sockets which provided the Mishkan’s foundation.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe sees Rashi’s midrash as a parallel to the Jewish community. While every person is unique physically, emotionally, and intellectually, the community could not function if everyone gave the same “donations.” Our community is a mosaic of poskim, teachers, students, philanthropists, mothers, fathers, and so much more. Yet we are all created in the image of God and are inherently bonded to Him in the same way. The foundation is all the same.

The foundation is the lowest, least noticeable part of a building. Sometimes it is buried out of sight in the ground, but this does not minimize its importance to the structure. Because of this, it is so important to receive a Jewish education. The education, which begins at home, provides the foundation for our commitment to Judaism, the root of which is the inherent bond which exists equally in everyone. The education continues in school where we then build upon the foundation and learn to perfect our individual abilities. We learn to focus on both our strengths and our weaknesses so that we grow to become unique people who can share our own personal talents with the world.


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