Shaya Cohen -


Creative Conundrums


Does Wood Belong in a Shul?

We know that nothing in the mishkan had visible wood. Everything that was made of wood was clad in metal of some kind. So we could not see anything crafted of wood in the mishkan.

The Torah goes further than this:

You shall not set up a sacred post—any wood beside the altar of your G-d that you may make.

It seems clear that there is some risk of idol worship if we were to put any kind of wood in the Mishkan. After all, worshipping trees is common enough in other religions, especially those, pagan ones, that overtly worship nature.

If this is the case, why are so many arons in shuls today made of visible wood?

We could also ask why wood is inappropriate in the mishkan? Indeed, the verse comes right after commandments regarding justice. Why is worshipping wood (or nature) counter to proper justice?

Is it possible that the reason is because nature is ultimately about Might Makes Right? After all, nature is where the strong defeats the weak. There is no justice in nature at all. So is a reminder of nature a corruption of justice?

Isn’t acting out of raw self-interest the natural way for all of us to act? If so, might wood be forbidden because it is a symbolic reminder of the Law of the Jungle, instead of the Laws of the Torah?

What is Wrong With Magic?

Let no one be found among you who consigns a son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.

The Torah does not say that employing magic is false or worthless. It seems to say, instead, that these are not things for Jews to engage in!

But why? What is the Torah objection to this entire category of gaining knowledge?

Might it be because of the interest in what the dead have to say? Is it because Judaism is meant to be by and for the living?

Might it come from a human desire to not be held responsible for our actions? After all, if we follow such a path, then are we not sloughing off the responsibility for our actions onto someone else? The Torah is full of examples of people claiming that someone else is responsible for their own actions (starting with Adam and Chava), so is it not clear that G-d does not want people to behave that way?


Fruit seems to have a special place in the Torah.

Consider that fruit, unlike grain or animals, can be eaten without any preparation – no grinding or cooking or any of the other things necessary to prepare wheat or a cow for human consumption. Is fruit the only food for which man does not need to invest any work in order to achieve some benefit?

Could fruit thus be seen as a direct gift from G-d?

If so, does it help explain why fruit trees are especially protected in the Torah? After all, trees can be used in war to build siegeworks – but only if they are not fruit trees.

Might it also explain the treatment of fruit in the Garden? Might there even be a connection between a food that requires no work, and Chava’s attempt to shirk responsibility for her actions? In other words, does getting something for “free” make someone behave less responsibly?

If so, might the existence of fruit be a test of some kind? And what is the connection to the pri etz hadar, the fruit we hold as one of the arbah minim on Sukkos?

Responsibility for Death?

The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke;

The word for “pulled” is meshech, and it is only found in 4 other examples in the Torah. The first one is

When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.

Might there be a connection?

Might this use of “pull” form a corrective for the events concerning Joseph?

That might sound far fetched. Yet whenever a dead body is found lying in the open, presumably because nobody cared enough to care for them, then it is a loss born by the closest town. They pay the cost of a young heifer, complete with declarations by the elders:

Absolve, G-d, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel. And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.  Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of G-d.

Does this not seem connected to what happened to Joseph? Instead of using the blood of an animal to hide one’s guilt for the blood of the innocent (Joseph), is the Torah teaching us to do the opposite: use the blood of an animal to take responsibility even for something that we might not have done?!

The Torah wants us to always try to ensure that we take responsibility for everyone, even a random stranger who passes through? If so, that responsibility is born through a combination of expense, embarrassment to the town, and the symbolic meaning of the slain heifer: each loss of life is a loss of potential. Is it not the opposite of what the brothers do to Joseph?

Or is there a better way to explain the use of the rare word meshech in these two places?


We can understand why more than one witness is needed in order to establish fact in a court of law. That sounds practical, after all.

But perhaps there is a reason that has to do with the miscreant in question? After all, there is a difference between committing a forbidden act in secret versus doing it in public, doing it without shame. I think we can agree that it is better to be embarrassed by our failings instead of being proud of them?

Could this possibly be another explanation for why we need more than one witness? Could it be a reminder to would-be evil-doers that there is something particularly wrong with being seen doing wrong, acting with wanton disregard for what other people think?

This parsha question sheet takes the approach of reading the Chumash very closely. It is assumed that every letter and word has meaning, and all questions can be answered (at least every one we have come up so far!) So you’ll find the questions offered every week are deeply textual, seeking relevance to our lives today from the foundational document for Judaism and indeed all of Western Civilization.

This sheet is distributed with the general approval of Rabbi Rose.

Our answers can be found at (use the search tool). Or email me at

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