• June 9, 2017

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah begins with a description of the installation and function of the menorah in the Tabernacle.

    “Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. Aaron did so; he set up its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the LORD had commanded Moses. Now this was how the lampstand was made, out of hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the LORD had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.” (Numbers 8:2-4)

    In the detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle that are found in the Book of Exodus one can find the specifics of how the menorah was to be constructed, and what we have in Numbers seems to be the final description of Read More >

  • June 2, 2017

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah contains one of the most detailed descriptions of a Biblical ritual in the entire Torah. Numbers 5:11-31 contains a description of the Sotah ritual. When a husband suspected his wife of being unfaithful she was subjected to an ordeal that would prove either her innocence or guilt. In addition to the description of the Sotah ritual found in the Torah, there is a very detailed tractate in the Mishnah (early 3rd century) that goes into even further detail.

    The Sotah ritual has been subject to much scholarly research, some compared this ritual to other Ancient Near Eastern ordeals while other focused on unavoidable questions regarding gender and patriarchy. I would like to discuss the approach to the Sotah taken by Ishai Rosen-Zvi in his book The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual: Temple, Gender and Midrash.

    Rosen-Zvi begins by asking the following questions:

    Why does the Mishnah reformulate a ritual Read More >

  • May 12, 2017

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah is a priestly delight. It’s filled with numerous teachings that were relevant to the lives of priests, kohanim, in the past, and for some kohanim, still today. Many people, not only kohanim, are challenged by some of the restrictions that were placed on the priests. Along with the numerous benefits that came along with the priesthood, there were also prohibitions, some related to whom they could marry, while others addressed certain physical characteristics that disqualified a priest from performing his priestly duties.

    “The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who Read More >

  • May 3, 2017

    The double parshiyot of this week’s Torah reading, Tazria-Metzora, are for many commentators a challenge. Many parshiyot in the Book of Leviticus are challenging, but much of this week’s Torah reading reads like a zombie apocalypse in which people are still concerned whether they are pure or impure.

    One theme that keeps returning throughout the reading is that of isolation and loneliness. Law after law describes how people were to be isolated from the rest of the Israelite encampment and whose entry into the sanctuary was forbidden.

    She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. (Lev. 12:4)

    But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest Read More >

  • April 20, 2017

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah begins with Moses’s instructions to Aaron, his sons, and the elders of Israel:

    On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and bring them before the LORD…” (Leviticus 9:1-2)

    Much of the parashah consists of instructions regarding the sacrifices and other regulations regarding dietary restrictions. Near the beginning of the parashah Moses relayed the following instructions to the Children of Israel. “Moses said: “This is what the LORD has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the LORD may appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:6)

    The midrash Yalkut Shimoni (13-14th century) brings the following interpretation (par. 521):

    Moses said to Israel: Remove that [evil] urge from your hearts in order that you all be of one feeling of Read More >

  • March 16, 2017

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah, Ki Tisa, includes one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire Torah, the Golden Calf. The description found in the Torah has rebellion, passion, emotion, idolatry, and violence, all of the ingredients needed for a good story. I would like to focus on something that happened after the calf was constructed and Moses descended from Mount Sinai.

    Moses saw that the people were out of control—since Aaron had let them get out of control—so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them. Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come here!” And all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, Read More >

  • March 1, 2017

    Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler was a central 20th century figure associated with the musar school of Jewish thought. One of Rabbi Dessler’s most well known essays is Kuntres Ha-hesed, literally, the Booklet of Kindness. It was later published in his collected writings titled Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, a Letter from Eliyahu, and has been studied and taught by students and teachers throughout the Jewish world.

    In this essay Rabbi Dessler addressed the relationship between giving and taking. What are the origins of giving and taking? What is the relationship between the two? Can people be described as “givers” or “takers”? If so, what does that say about them. What is the relationship between giving, taking, and love?

    As to whether people can be described as “givers” or “takers,” Rabbi Dessler wrote the following:

    These two powers—giving and taking—form the roots of all character traits and of all actions. And note: there is no middle Read More >

  • February 16, 2017

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    The highlight of this week’s parashah is the reading of the Ten Commandments. While there are midrashic compilations on individual books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments merited having their own individual midrash, Midrash Aseret ha-Dibrot, the Midrash of the Ten Commandments. This midrash was edited during the Middle Ages and draws upon many sources, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It is not structured like a classical midrash, and Joel Rosenberg wrote that “[it] represents the transition in Jewish literature from interpretation of Scripture to pure fiction, in a more modern sense of the term.”

    Below is an edited version of a story included in this midrash about the commandment against adultery, a story that describes the trials and tribulations of a certain Rabbi Meir.

    A tale is told of Rabbi Meir, that he used to go up to Jerusalem on each and every festival. And he would stay at Read More >

  • February 2, 2017

    by Rabbi David Almog

    The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more. 

    Liberation Starts With Listening to the Oppressed

    Our traditional image of Moses is the faithful transmitter of the word of God, Torah, and Mitzvot. Therefore, it is a bit surprising that, in both chapters 12 and 13 of Exodus, in the very first commands given by God to Israel regarding the marking of liberation, the words of God and those of Moses seem to Read More >

  • January 25, 2017

    by Michael Pitkowsky

    “And the Lord spoke to Moses: Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your rod over the streams, over the rivers, over the ponds, and raise up (ve-ha’al) frogs upon (al) the land of Egypt. And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frog came up (va-ta’al) and covered the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 8:1-2)

    When some people think about the plague of frogs in Egypt they have trouble seeing this plague on the same level as let’s say boils or pestilence. Frogs all over Egypt? OK, not something that any of us would want, but I’ll take that over the killing of the first born any day. Despite the possible comical vision of what this plague may have been like, it was treated with utmost seriousness by our sages.

    One Talmudic interpretation recognized a grammatical anomaly in the text describing this plague.

    “‘And the Read More >

  • January 6, 2017
    Do Numbers Really Matter?
    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah includes a detailed reckoning of all of the Israelites who went down to Egypt. In the midst of this list the following is written: “These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, together with his daughter Dinah; in all his sons and his daughters numbered thirty-three.” (Genesis 46:15) This seemingly innocent verse was the cause for much exegetical discussion.

    Before we speak about this verse, how about the following verse that also raised some eyebrows: “And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two in number. Thus the total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was seventy persons.” (Genesis 46:27) It was simple mathematics, or maybe not so simple mathematics, that was the catalyst for so many comments on these verses. In his Hagut be-Parshiyot ha-Torah, Yehudah Gershuni brings a number of Read More >

  • December 22, 2016

    by Rabbi David Almog

    Once upon a ‘Vayehi‘: Listening to the Torah
    Parashat Vayeishev

    And then 

    I always thought the words, and then, were a prelude to something wonderful. Like seeing a ship come in or finding a note in your letterbox, when you weren’t expecting one. That swift, surprising transition from nothing to everything.

    And then.

    Two little words that hold a world of promise.

    And then the light pierced though the dark, forbidding sky, and the rain stopped falling.
    And then I met you.
    – Lang Leav

    For writers, the simple words “and then” are much maligned as redundant. The sequence in the sentence, “I sat down and I read the parashah,” is clear without the word “then”. “And then,” if used repeatedly, can sound unwieldy. “I went to the store, and then I bought groceries, and then I cooked dinner, and then I did the dishes.” Nevertheless, when used effectively, “and then” can be emphatic, Read More >

  • December 14, 2016
    Jacob’s Behavior Towards Esau: Appeasement or Realpolitik?
    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky
    This week’s parashah continues the description of Jacob’s attempts at rapprochement with his estranged brother Esau. In his book on Genesis, Rabbi Yehudah Gilad draws our attention to a word that plays an important role in the Jacob-Esau narrative, minha — gift.
    “Spending the night there that night, he took a gift from what was at hand, for Esav his brother.” (Gen. 32:14)
    “Then say: — to your servant, to Yaakov, it is a gift sent to my lord, to Esav, and here, he himself is also behind us.” (Gen. 32:19)
    “You shall say: Also — here, your servant Yaakov is behind us. For he said to himself: I will wipe (the anger from) his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face!” (Gen. 32:21)
    “The gift crossed over ahead of his Read More >
  • November 9, 2016

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    The Pluralism of Language

    According to the end of this week’s parashah, at one time in history there was a uniformity of human language.

    Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” (Gen. 11:1-3, NRSV trans.)

    A few verses later we read about the destructive nature of this uniformity of language.

    “The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, Read More >

  • June 24, 2016

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    Near the end of this week’s parashah, in the midst of Aharon and Miriam’s attempt to undermine Moshe’s authority, the Torah tells us that “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) In the eyes of the Rabbis humility was a trait that all people should try and acquire. Rabbi Yohanan, a third century sage from the Land of Israel, included humble people as one of the few upon whom the Shekhinah, God’s presence, would rest. (Nedarim 38a)
    The Talmud relates the following story about Moshe.
    R. Joshua b. Levi said, “When Moses came down from before the Holy One, blessed be He, the Satan came and said before him, ‘Lord of the world, where is the Torah?’ “He said to him, ‘I gave it to the earth.’ “He went to the earth and Read More >
  • June 16, 2016

    by Hazzan Marcia Lane

    [We would like to bring to people’s attention the difference between the traditional Diaspora and Israeli Torah reading cycles for the next few months. Since this year the eighth day of Passover, which was observed by many in the Diaspora, fell on Shabbat and had a special Torah reading, the Israeli Torah reading cycle moved one parashah ahead of the traditional Diaspora cycle. The AJR divrei Torah will follow the traditional Diaspora cycle and will catch up to the Israeli cycle at the beginning of August.]

    The Text is Context

    Parashat Naso begins with a census of the Levitical priests and ends with a series of repetitive paragraphs outlining the gifts that the chiefs of each tribe bring to outfit the Tabernacle. But in the middle of the parashah (Numbers 5:11-5:31) there is a curious description of a ritual that shall be carried out in the case of a Read More >

  • May 13, 2016

    by Hazzan Marcia Lane

    [We would like to bring to people’s attention the difference between the traditional Diaspora and Israeli Torah reading cycles for the next few months. Since this year the eighth day of Passover, which was observed by many in the Diaspora, fell on Shabbat and had a special Torah reading, the Israeli Torah reading cycle moved one parashah ahead of the traditional Diaspora cycle. The AJR divrei Torah will follow the traditional Diaspora cycle and will catch up to the Israeli cycle at the beginning of August.]

    Parashat Kedoshim — The Little Things

    Remember the first time your child learned the power of “no”? Oddly, that one word sometimes carries more weight than the equally small, one-syllable “yes.” Sometimes the smallest words are the most powerful. All the most important questions in life can be answered in one syllable.

    In this week’s parashah there is a tiny, one-syllable Hebrew word whose Read More >

  • May 5, 2016

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    Death. Why is there death in this world? Is there a meaning to death? We often ask these questions as we try to make sense of death or when we are confronted with tragedy that seems to overwhelm our sense of right and wrong. We are not alone in asking these questions.

    R. Abba b. Abina enquired: For what reason was the section recording the death of Miriam placed in close proximity to that dealing with the ashes of the Red Heifer? Simply this, to teach that as the ashes of the Heifer effect atonement (mekhaper), so the death of the righteous effects atonement (mekhaperet). R. Judan asked: For what reason was the death of Aaron recorded in close proximity to the breaking of the Tables? Simply this, to teach that Aaron’s death was as grievous to the Holy One, blessed be He, as the breaking of the Read More >

  • March 31, 2016

    Shabbat Parah — Holy cow!!

    This Shabbat is one of the four specially designated Shabbatot leading up to Passover. They are all exemplified by a special Torah reading that gets added to the reading for the particular Shabbat, and they all have special haftarot — readings from the prophetic books. This week is the strangest of all, Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the red heifer. Or, as one of my teachers called it, “Holy Cow Shabbat!” We will read the standard Torah reading for the week, in this case the reading in the book of Leviticus called Shemini, and then we will read from the book of Numbers, the section that outlines the ritual of choosing, slaughtering, and burning a pure red heifer, one that has never worn a yoke on its neck.

    The convoluted ritual of the sacrifice of this cow is part of the process of purification leading up to Read More >

  • March 25, 2016

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah continues the extensive discussion of the different sacrifies that God commanded the Israelites, and it is therefore not surprising that sacrifices make an appearance in the haftarah chosen for Parashat Tzav. The haftarah contains a much discussed verse from Jeremiah that seems to imply that the Children of Israel were not originally commanded to offer sacrifices.
    “For on the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jeremiah 7:22)
    A similar sentiment can be found in Amos:
    “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:25)
    Biblical commentators and scholars have been puzzled by the claim that the Children of Israel were not commanded to offer sacrifies Read More >
  • February 18, 2016

    by Hazzan Marcia Lane

    Just as last week’s parashah described in great detail the making of the mishkan — the Tabernacle — this week’s Torah portion describes in great detail the design and fabrication of the vestments for Aaron, who was to become the High Priest, and for his sons, who would help him to perform the rituals of the priesthood in the Tabernacle. Each of the elements of the vestments functions in a manner that is parallel to the function of the Tabernacle itself; each is a reminder of holiness. In the case of the building of the Tabernacle, Moses is told:

    V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. They shall make for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

    So the purpose of the sanctuary is for the Israelites to create a sacred space in order that God’s presence might reside among the people. When it comes to the Read More >

  • February 12, 2016

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    Almost all of this week’s parashah is devoted to a detailed description of different aspects of the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle–which materials are to be used, how much of each, and how they are to be put together. At the beginning of the parashah, before we read all of these detailed descriptions, there is a verse which addresses the larger question of the purpose of the mishkan.

    “Let them make Me a Sanctuary (mikdash) and I shall dwell (ve-shakhanti) among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

    This short verse contains a powerful theological statement, God declares that he will dwell in this sanctuary. Even within the Bible questions were raised about this idea. When King Solomon finished dedicating the Temple he recited a prayer that included the following:

    “Does God truly dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their utmost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built?” Read More >

  • January 7, 2016
    by Hazzan Marcia Lane
    See, Hear.
    In the office where I work we have an office dog, a tiny, ancient, tea-cup Yorkshire Terrier. Gracie has cataracts in both her eyes, but when she looks at you, you would swear she could see you. And, in a way, she does. When she hears her favorite people, she lights up like a thousand watts! And when she smells food she makes a bee-line for it! Clearly her other senses have compensated for the loss of vision. She navigates her worlds with the gps of memory, which is extremely sharp!
    This week’s parashah introduces the first seven of the ten plagues which are to befall Egypt. From the very first sign of God’s power, the experience is visceral. The language seems to indicate experiences that overwhelm and confound all the senses. Walking sticks turn into snakes, which Read More >
  • January 7, 2016

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    Parashat Shemot describes not only the development of the Israelites as a people in Egypt, but also that of their leader Moses. While the Torah does not describe in detail all of Moses’s earlier years, it does offer us a glimpse at some of the formative moments of his life. One of these moments was when Moses, floating on the Nile, was found by Pharoah’s daughter.

    When she opened it, she saw that it was a child (yeled), a boy (na’ar) crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child (mei-yaldei ha-ivri’im zeh). (Exodus 2:6)

    The ambiguity of how Moses is described has drawn the attention of many commentators. Was he a “child” (yeled) or a “boy” (na’ar)? We find the following comment in the Talmud (Sotah 12b).

    A boy (na’ar) crying”–he is called a ‘child’ (yeled) and then a ‘boy’ (na’ar)! — A Tanna Read More >

  • November 27, 2015

    ‘Til I Send For You

    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    A couple of weeks ago we read in Parashat Toledot that Rebecca sent Jacob away to the country of Haran, to hang out there with her side of the family until his brother Esau cooled off. Just for “yamim ahadim“–a few days, maybe a week or two. And then she said, “v’shalahti ul’kahtikha mi-sham.” I will send for you and bring you from there. (Gen. 27:45) But months and years go by, and Rebecca does not send for him, and Jacob builds a life in Haran. He marries (twice), fathers many children, builds wealth, and his mother never sends for him to come home. In fact, Rebecca vanishes from the biblical narrative when Jacob leaves to go to Haran. Instead God speaks to Jacob and tells Jacob to “return to the land of your fathers, where you were Read More >

  • November 19, 2015

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    In this week’s parashah we read about the first meeting between Jacob and Rachel.

    “Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban.” (Genesis 29:10)

    On this verse Rashi wrote

    “‘Jacob went up and rolled’: As one who removes the stopper from a bottle, to let you know that he possessed great strength (Gen. Rabbah 70:12).”

    It seems that according to Rashi, the “great strength” that Jacob possessed was purely physical. Because of this extraordinary strength he was able to roll the stone that was blocking the well’s mouth. Rabbi Nechemia Ra’anan has shown that the great 20th century teacher of musar, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, had a slightly different understanding of Jacob’s strength. For Rabbi Shmuelevitz Jacob’s strength was not Read More >

  • October 20, 2015

    The Age Of Destruction

    Haza

    In last week’s Torah reading, Genesis/Bereishit, we saw not one but two very wonderful versions of God’s creative energy. The act of creating the world is told in two very different stories, first in chapter 1:1-2:4 (“and there was evening, and there was morning, day one”) and again in chapter 2:5-2:24 (“…but for Adam, no fitting help-partner was found.”). In this week’s parashah, Noah, we see the first of several examples of God as destroyer. Disgusted with the behavior of humankind, with the violence that has corrupted creation, God decides to wipe out animal life on the planet and start over. He instructs Noah to create a closed bio-system, a way of preserving the ‘starter kit’ for the new world. In stunning language, the bible describes the effects of the flood:

    And all flesh that stirred upon the earth perished; birds, cattle, beasts, every swarming thing that swarmed Read More >

  • October 8, 2015

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    For many people the season of repentance ended with the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. For others the gates of repentance remained open through Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot. This emphasis on Hoshanah Rabbah as the final day of the season of repentance can be found in numerous medieval sources and is illustrated in the following statement from the Zohar:

    “On the seventh day of the Festival, Judgement is concluded in the world and decrees go forth from the King’s palace.” (Zohar, Tsav 3:31b, trans. D. Matt)

    I would like to extend the theme of repentance to include Parashat Bereishit. Rabbi Yaakov Meidan of Yeshivat Har Etzion pointed out that in this week’s parashah we read not only about the first sin committed by humanity, but also about the first missed opportunity to perform teshuvah, repentance.

    But the LORD God called to the man, and said Read More >

  • June 18, 2015

    Jules Verne’s classic work of science fiction, Journey to the Center of the Earth, describes how Professor Otto Lidenbrock, along with his nephew and their guide, descend to the center of the Earth through a volcanic tube. While on their travels they experience many exciting adventures, encounter strange animals, and even met the descendants of Korah. Wait a second, did I just say that Professor Lidenbrock, Axel, and Hans met the descendants of Korah while they were journeying to the center of the Earth? 

    Leaving aside the mingling of characters in the Bible and those from a Jules Verne novel, whatever did happen to Korah and his followers? Many people assume that they died on that hot desert day after the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them. Isn’t that what happened? Truth be told, it’s complicated.

    This is how the Torah describes Read More >

  • June 3, 2015

    The Seven Books of Moses

    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    There’s a very famous story from the Talmud regarding Rabbi Akiva. When Moses ascended into heaven, he saw God occupied in making little crowns for the letters of the Torah. Upon his inquiry as to what these might be for, he received the answer, “In the future there will come a man named Akiva ben Joseph, who will deduce halakhot(laws) from every little thorn and crown of the letters of the Law.” Moses asked to be allowed to see this man, and was instantly transported to Akiva’s classroom. But he was dismayed as he listened to Rabbi Akiva’s teaching. “Rabbi,” his student asked, “from where do we get this (law)?” Akiva explained, “This law is from Moshe, received at Sinai.” (Menachot 29b)

    Of course poor Moshe couldn’t understand a word of their conversation!

    Whenever I look at Read More >

  • May 7, 2015

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    Love and rebuke are actions that many people understand to be in tension with each other. If you love someone then you don’t rebuke them, and if you rebuke someone, then it must be because you don’t love them. In reality, it is wrong to see love and rebuke as being polar opposites. Sometimes it is because of our love that we rebuke someone, and rebuke can also be understood to be a way of expressing love. The way in which we rebuke someone is what makes all the difference. Do the tone and content of our rebuke reflect concern and empathy, or do they give the impression of a patronizing and judgmental attitude?

    In his book Parperaot la-Torah, Rabbi Natan Tzvi Friedman brought the following source from the commentary Kol Rinah that addressed the need to rebuke out of love.

    “The Read More >

  • April 15, 2015

    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    I’m a ‘mostly vegetarian.’ I started years ago because of stories on NPR about feed lots. Cattle raised in feed lots stay in one place, standing in their own excrement. They are fed corn – which is not what cattle normally eat. I mean, think about it. How could a cow shuck an ear of corn? Corn is really food for people and crows. Feed lot cattle are raised in such terrible conditions that they develop multiple health problems, for which they are given antibiotics and growth hormones. So I gave up beef. That was not really a problem, because I had chicken, and I loved chicken. So versatile! Less expensive! And much easier to eat without a fork and knife.

    Then I heard about the conditions under which chickens are raised. The thought of stuffing hundreds and hundreds of birds into a small Read More >

  • March 26, 2015

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    The practice of offering korbanot, sacrifices, was central to Israelite and Jewish worship for centuries. While during the Biblical period it may have been natural to offer an animal sacrifice, since then Jewish thinkers have been trying to interpret the meaning of the sacrificial system. The important 13th century Spanish Biblical commentator, Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, the Ramban, wrote an extended discussion about the meaning of the sacrificial system in his commentary on Leviticus. (See Ramban on Leviticus 9:1)

    In his commentary the Ramban brings the historical approach to the sacrificial system that was offered by Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the Rambam. According to the Rambam, in order to understand the korbanot we must historically contextualize them in their ancient setting. The Ramban disagreeed with the Rambam’s approach and offered another understanding of the sacrificial system, one that interpreted the sacrifices in all their details as Read More >

  • March 11, 2015

    All Together, One at a Time
    by Hazzan Marcia Lane

    The two final parshiyot, Va-yakhel (“he assembled”) and Pekudei (“accounting”), of the book of Exodus are frequently read together. This is due to the vagaries of the Jewish calendar and to the brevity of these two sections of the Torah, not to any particular theological statement. Nonetheless, the fact that they are so often paired can give us insights into the nature of the phenomenon of ‘peoplehood’ and individuality, and how they are perceived and fostered.

    In these parshiyot, right after the section about the idolatry of the Golden Calf, Moses calls together the entire kahal, the whole congregation of Israel. Men, women, children, Israelites and hangers-on, all are present to hear a recapitulation of God’s instructions concerning the collecting of gifts (terumah) and the building of the tabernacle (mishkan) and the creation of the priestly vestments. If you’ve been following the past Read More >

  • February 11, 2015

    by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    In his comments on this week’s parashah, Yeshayu Leibowitz pointed out an interesting comment by the Gaon of Vilna on Exodus 21:5-6.

    But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

    The Gaon makes the following comment in his book Aderet Eliyahu on these verses.

    “Or to the doorpost”: The simple meaning of the verse is that the doorpost (mezuzah) is also valid, but the halakhah uproots scripture (אבל ההלכה עוקרת את המקרא), and so it is in the majority of this parashah, and in a number of parshiyot in the Torah, and this is the greatness of the Oral Law that Read More >

  • January 28, 2015

    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    Although the most distinctive aspect of this week’s parashah is the magnificent crossing of the Sea of Reeds, this parashah is full of fascinating detail, and precursors of other episodes to come. At times it appears that the Torah is talking to itself. This inter-textuality is both a challenge and a joy. It keeps the investigation of Biblical language fresh and it feeds the art of interpretation. For example, this week we have the following familiar scene of complaining:

    The Israelites said to them (Moshe and Aharon): If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by stewpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death! (Exodus 16:3)

    When the people grumble — as they will repeatedly throughout their journey — God tells Moshe:

    I have heard the Read More >

  • January 15, 2015

    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    There is a new satirical TV show in Israel called Ha-Yehudim Baim, the Jews are Coming. For the show there is no figure in Jewish history who is off limits. Whether it be Moshe Rabbeinu or Moshe Dayan, no one is immune. One sketch that has been broadcast on a number of episodes is the “Commentator’s Gallery.” In this segment, which is based upon raucous shows that discuss political issues, the two important Bible commentators Rashi and Umberto Cassuto debate, if one can call it that, issues related to the Bible. A host tries to keep things under control, often separating Rashi and Cassuto after they trade barbs.

    One topic that was discussed on a recent episode was the Ten Plagues. The following dialogue took place between the characters. [The video in Hebrew can be viewed here.]

    Host: Another hot topic this evening…the Ten Plagues.

    Rashi: I’m Read More >

  • January 2, 2015

    Parashat Va-Yehi
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    Many people associate this week’s parashah with endings. Much of the parashah consists of Jacob’s final testament to his children, and next week we no longer read about the trials and tribulations of Abraham’s descendants, but rather of the rise of Moses as a leader and the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. Despite this emphasis on the end of an era, an interpretation found in the Talmud understands a verse found at the beginning of this week’s parashah as a sign of beginning.

    Until Abraham there was no such thing as [the sign of] old age. Whoever saw Abraham thought, “This is Isaac.” Whoever saw Isaac thought, “This is Abraham.” Abraham prayed for mercy so that he might have [signs of] old age, as it is said, “And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age” (Gen. 24:1). Until the time Read More >

  • January 2, 2015

    Parashat Va-Yehi
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    Many people associate this week’s parashah with endings. Much of the parashah consists of Jacob’s final testament to his children, and next week we no longer read about the trials and tribulations of Abraham’s descendants, but rather of the rise of Moses as a leader and the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. Despite this emphasis on the end of an era, an interpretation found in the Talmud understands a verse found at the beginning of this week’s parashah as a sign of beginning.

    Until Abraham there was no such thing as [the sign of] old age. Whoever saw Abraham thought, “This is Isaac.” Whoever saw Isaac thought, “This is Abraham.” Abraham prayed for mercy so that he might have [signs of] old age, as it is said, “And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age” (Gen. 24:1). Until the time Read More >

  • December 23, 2014

    Seven Years of Famine
    by Hazzan Marcia Lane

    And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years it is the same dream. The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the cast wind; they are seven years of famine. It is just as I have told Pharaoh: God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. As the land is ravaged by famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of Read More >

  • December 3, 2014

    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    The negative attitude towards Esau in rabbinic literature is familiar to many and exemplified by the midrash that states “It is a well known teaching [halakhah] that Esau hates Jacob.” (Sifre on Deuteronomy, Beha’alotkha 69) These midrashim were not talking just about Jacob and Esau, these two figures were, in the words of Gerson D. Cohen, “archetypal symbols of Jewry and Rome.” (found in Gerson D. Cohen, “Esau as Symbol in Early Medieval Thought”)

    Did the Rabbis have anything positive to say about Esau? As a matter of fact, they did. The following midrashim show that the rabbis were able to find something good even in somebody who was described so negatively such as Esau. We are challenged to look beyond the negativity in order to find the positive in everyone.

    “And Rebecca took the choicest garments of her eldest son Esau, which were with her in the house” Read More >

  • November 5, 2014

    Vayeirah
    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    Let me just say, straight off, that choosing one or other episode from this week’s parashah, like all the parshiyot of the book of Genesis, is a tricky proposition. Shall I address the story of Abraham and Sarah and their angelic visitors, but ignore the Akedah, the binding of Isaac? For synagogues that follow the triennial reading of the Torah, the big event this week will be the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, but we will also read about the king of Gerar, Avimelech, and how he took Sarah into his household, thinking that she was Abraham’s sister. The banishment of Hagar and Ishmael? You can see the problem here; the Torah portion is simply too good. Too packed with juicy stories. But there is a thread that connects these episodes. Our Torah portion introduces two important and inter-connected mitzvot (commandments): bikkur holim (visiting the sick) Read More >

  • November 5, 2014

    Hukkat
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah contains a somewhat strange description of what happened to the Children of Israel after they complained to God and Moses about their current precarious state. God’s response was to send poisonous serpents as a plague among the people. The people then come to Moses, admitted their fault, and God proceeded to tell Moses the cure, a serpent made of bronze.

    “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Read More >

  • November 5, 2014

    Bemidbar
    Hazan Marcia Lane

    Where Am I? (or “Stuck in the Middle Again!”)

    The fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, begins with one of those statements that sounds, at least to me, as if it was being narrated by Charlton Heston.

    “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year, after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying: Take a census ….”  (Num. 1:1-2)

    It’s a cinematic moment. The entire nation (together with all the hangers-on) have been camped at the foot of the mountain, growing and weaving and building all the elements of the mishkan– the movable sacred space – and learning the necessary laws for what will be their life as an independent nation, living in its own land. For two years and one month the people have been sojourning here, in the wilderness of Sinai, Read More >
  • November 5, 2014

    Beukotai
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    The Ramban (Moses Nachmanides, Spain/1194-1270) makes a number of comments on this week’s parashah that relate to miracles and medicine, in other words, the relationship between trust in God and human initiated healing. It is worth remembering that not only was the Ramban a Biblical and Talmudic commentator, but he was also a physician.

    “In general then, when Israel is in perfect [accord with G-d], constituting a large number, their affairs are not conducted at all by the natural order of things, neither in connection with themselves, nor with reference to their Land, neither collectively nor individually, for G-d blesses their bread and their water, and removes sickness from their midst, so that they do not need a physician and do not have to observe any of the rules of medicine. just as He said, “for I am the Eternal that healeth thee.” (Exodus 15:26) And so did Read More >

  • November 5, 2014
    Kedoshim
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky
    Holiness, kedushah, abounds in this week’s parashah. The Children of Israel are commanded to be holy (Lev. 19:2; 20:7), God is described as being holy (ibid.), and God is also described as sanctifying Israel (Lev. 20:8). Holiness is a concept that invokes strong religious emotion and it is empowering, but holiness also has the potential to be misused. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was an Israeli scientist and philosopher, was very weary of the potential abuse of holiness as a formative concept in our religious lives. According to him, only God is holy. He wrote the following as a warning against what he felt were the dangers of attributing holiness to people, historical events, actions, objects, and places:
    “One expression of the transformation of faith into idolatry is to be found in the distortion of the concept of holiness. The recognition that holiness is an attribute of God Read More >
  • November 5, 2014

    What’s in a Name?
    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    Like all three pilgrimage festivals, Passover has several names. It’s called Hag ha-Pesah, the ‘passing-over’ holiday, in Exodus 12:11 and in several other places in the Torah. That name refers to the fact that when the Angel of Death comes to kill the firstborn in the land of Egypt, he skips, passes over, the houses of the Israelites which are marked with blood on the doorposts. In acknowledgement of the connection of the holiday to the cycle of the agricultural year, it’s also called Hag ha-Aviv, the Springtime festival, alluded to in Deuteronomy 16:1.

    It seems obvious that this holiday, during which we are prohibited from consuming or even possessing hametz, leavened foods, should also be called Hag ha-Matzot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That name occurs in Exodus 12:8 and in several other Read More >

  • April 10, 2014

    Aharei Mot
    Jerome Chanes

    Chapter 17 of Sefer Sh’mot (the Book of Exodus) begins by recalling the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The parashah thence goes into the details of the behavior of the person who is about to enter the sacred precincts of the Mishkan (tabernacle) or the Temple, God’s house. The description of the service in the parashah is conventionally read as preparation for entering the sacred precincts, the kodesh ha-kodoshim, on Yom HaKippurim, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that this is so. More about this question below.

    Why are the rules of the kodesh ha-kodoshim preceded by the comment about the death of Aaron’s sons? What do we learn from the proximity of the two texts? In the initial story of the death of Aaron’s sons, the reason given is that they “brought strange fire”, whatever that means. In our parashah, the Read More >

  • March 18, 2014

    This Shabbat, Shabbat Parah, is the third of the special Shabbatot that are observed from before Purim, beginning with Shabbat Shekalim, and continuing through the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh Nisan, Shabbat ha-Hodesh. This week’s special maftir Torah reading is about the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. This section of the Torah is read because the use of the Red Heifer’s ashes was a necessary step in the process of purification before the offering of the Korban Pesah, the Paschal offering. The meaning of the Red Heifer has challenged commentators and interpreters since late antiquity. The following midrash addresses the meaning of the Red Heifer, contrasting the explanation that was given by a rabbi sage from the first century CE to a Gentile with the explanation that he gave to his students. Raising the question of whether we should tailor our teachings and opinions to different audiences.

    A gentile asked Rabban Yohanan ben Read More >

  • March 3, 2014

    Give it up!

    Harold Ramis, the actor/director/screenwriter of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, just died. May his memory be for a blessing. His movies treat the absurd with earnest seriousness. They are works of comic genius. While discussing Groundhog Day he likened the experience of watching the movie with reading Torah.

    The film is the film; It does not change…. But we are different each year, each time we see it…. It’s like Torah. Every year, every Jew all over the world reads the Torah. We start it on the same day, we read the exact same section each week as every Jew around the world. But it’s different each year. I mean, the Torah is the Torah. It hasn’t changed. But we’ve changed.

    This week we begin the book of Vayikra, the central book of the Torah. Most of this book depicts a world that simply doesn’t exist anymore, a Read More >

  • February 24, 2014

    This week’s parashah continues the detailed description of the different components of the tabernacle, its vessels, and the priestly vestaments. An interesting theme within Jewish interpretation is the parallel drawn between the Tabernacle, the Holy Temple, and the universe. The following sources trace this idea over a period of a thousand years. They begin with Philo, who was born in the first century before the common era, and end with a Kabbalistic text from the Middle Ages. They all understand the Tabernacle or the Temple to correspond to something greater than their component parts, whether it is the celestial beings of the heavens or humanity itself.

    Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE):

    The highest, and in the truest sense the holy, temple of God is, as we must believe, the whole universe, having for its sanctuary the most sacred part of all existence, (namely) heaven; for its offerings, the stars; for its Read More >

  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Ki-Tissa
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    “The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (Exodus 32:7)

    When the Children of Israel worshipped the Golden Calf, Moses was confronted with one of the greatest challenges to his role as leader of the people. God laid part of the blame on Moses’s shoulders. “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” It is “your people” who have acted perversely, not “the people.” They didn’t just leave Egypt, you brought them out of Egypt. The following midrash addresses how a leader should react when he or she is faced with a crisis. According to this midrash, leaders should not remain aloof and above the people, rather, they must “go down” from their greatness. While it may be easier for a leader Read More >

  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Terumah
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    This week’s parashah begins with God saying to Moses that he should speak to the Children of Israel and to ask them to bring gifts, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25:2) The formulation of God’s command to Moses in the original Hebrew is “va-yikhu li terumah.” In most of the instances in the Bible when there is a description of bringing terumah, the word “va-yikhu” is not used, rather, a different word such as “va-yarimu” is used.
    This irregular use of the word “va-yikhu” stimulated the midrash to try and understand why this word was used. The answer was found in a connection between the word “va-yikhu” and the word “lekah” that has the identical root, a word that is sometimes understood to refer to Torah. The midrash below expands upon that connection and offers a Read More >
  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Mishpatim
    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    Not in Heaven 

    In the Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b-59b, there is a famous story of a discussion concerning the kashrut, the ritual purity, of an oven. The majority of rabbis rule in one direction, but Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus consistently rules in the other direction. He calls upon a carob tree, and on a stream, and even on the walls of the school, and they behave in supernatural ways in order to attest to the correctness of his ruling. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer calls for a heavenly voice to confirm his judgement, and when it does, albeit on behalf of the majority, Rabbi Yehoshua answers the voice by saying famously, “It is not in heaven!” That is, the adjudication of this dispute is not a matter for God to decide. People, fallible though we may be, have the final say in adjudicating on earthly matters.

    It would seem reasonable to insist that Read More >

  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Va-Eira
    Jerome Chanes

    Parashat Va-Eira is one of the parashiyot that transition Sefer Bereishit to Sefer Shemot. The very last word in the Book of Genesis is “Mitzrayim,” Egypt, and the point is made, immediately, that the exile has begun. In order to understand Va-Eira, we need to return to Shemot, in which the nature of our exile is explored.

    Sefer Shemot is a book whose narrative begins, “And these are the names . . .,” but there are no names! The unnamed couple who have an unnamed baby under the reign of the unnamed Pharaoh whose unnamed daughter pulls him out of the Nile and, at some point, names him. In fact, our hero has no name.

    So in chapter two, which is where the narrative begins, we know all the characters-Yocheved and Miriam and Amram and Pharaoh’s daughter-but no one is named in the text. Very striking in our Humash, which is obsessed with names: the genealogies, the careful identification of ancestry. Names are important. Read More >

  • February 13, 2014
    Parashat Va-Yigash
    Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky
    In Parashat Va-Yigash we read the following description of the conversation between Joseph’s brothers and their father Jacob.
    “But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived.” (Genesis 45:27)

    According to this verse, Jacob had been in a state of mourning during the years when he thought that Joseph was dead, but upon hearing the news that he was still alive, “the spirit of their father Jacob revived.”

    The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, in the seventh chapter of his introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avot, addressed the issue of prophecy. What is prophecy? How does someone become a prophet? What affects prophecy? Below are some selections from that chapter, with the Rambam eventually integrating the renewed spirit of Jacob from this Read More >

  • May 17, 2013

    By Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    The wilderness travels in the book of Bemidbar begin with the description of the Israelite’s camp, its orientation to the four directions: the Tabernacle at the center and the identifying banners of the twelve tribes flying at the front of each tribal camp. This is a traveling camp. It will dismantle itself and reassemble countless times over the next forty years. It will move in circles, never arriving at its hoped for destination, while days and years will pass. A lifetime will pass for these people as they journey forward and back, right and left, but they will always maintain a focus on the ‘holy’, the Tabernacle, at the center. The ‘holy’ will travel with them and as such, it must be dismantled and reassembled many times over, at each pause on the journey.

    Our parashah tells us that each Levite clan, the Gershonite, Merrarite and Kohathite, has Read More >

  • May 3, 2013

    Texts that Call for Faith
    By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

    This year, as in many, these two Torah portions are combined into one reading in order to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the lunar calendar. Behar iterates the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, to occur every seventh and fiftieth year respectively. At these times the fields and vineyards of the Israelites are to remain untouched, except for gathering produce from past years, which could be shared with others and eaten, but could not be sold for profit. All land is to be returned to its previous owner; this requires adjustments in payments as the Jubilee year approaches. One is prohibited from charging interest on a loan to an indigent Israelite. Hebrew slaves are to be treated with respect and can be redeemed by a relative. Finally, Hebrew slaves can go free, although gentile slaves are to remain captive, and possessions are to Read More >

  • April 11, 2013

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    Great joy resounded in the halls of modern science when the long-sought after “God particle”, the Higgs-boson element, was recently confirmed in the special, underground, womb-like fission testing chamber in Switzerland. While it is entirely wonderful to think that we can now have measurable evidence of how matter begins to be formed at the level of the smallest perceivable particles, yet there is nothing here emotionally or spiritually that can compare to the experience of giving birth to a child, a truly unforgettable spiritual event in our lives. Personally, I recall the birth of my children as a physically exhausting, but emotionally exhilarating time, where closeness of life AND death were tangibly experienced. During and immediately following my daughters’ births, I experienced a closeness to God like never before and which is hard to express in words. Because we are unable to remember our own Read More >

  • April 4, 2013

    By Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    Parashat Shemini begins with the ‘grand opening’ of the Tabernacle. Aaron and his sons have been properly garbed and consecrated for their task of serving as priests. Aaron offers the very first sacrifices upon the altar, and to the astonishment of all those gathered, God responds by sending forth a fire that consumes the offering on the altar. “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering.” (Lev. 9:24) The people are overwhelmed by this display of God’s presence. The text relates “all the people saw and shouted and fell on their faces.” (Lev. 9:24) The sacrificial relationship between the people and God, that has been meticulously instructed, designed and carried out to perfection, has been consummated. The people have put forth their offerings for expiation from the sin of the Golden Calf and God has responded with acceptance. One might see this event as Read More >

  • March 21, 2013

    By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

    Shabbat Hagadol

    This “Great Shabbat,” which falls before Pesah, can be viewed as a paradigm for Judaism itself, as well as for the changing role of the rabbi over the centuries. There are a variety of explanations for the nomenclature and unique customs associated with this unique Shabbat.

    “In Tosafot (Shabbat 87), in accordance with the Midrash we read: And therefore we call it Shabbat Hagadol because a great miracle was performed on that day” (Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage, p. 150).
    Early sources describe the first Shabbat Hagadol being celebrated on the 10th of Nisan, Saturday, five days before the Israelites escaped from Egypt. “On the tenth day of the month…each man shall take a lamb for a household…” (Exodus 12:3) It was believed that a miracle enabled the Israelites to select the lamb for sacrifice on that Shabbat, because the Egyptians, who normally would not have permitted them to Read More >
  • March 17, 2013

    by Rabbi Bob Freedman

    The morning liturgy in our prayerbook includes a section for study of the laws of offerings. The rationale for this comes from Taanit 27b where the rabbis envision Abraham foreseeing a time to come when worship by means of offerings will no longer be possible. He asks God, “What will happen to Israel when the Temple no longer exists?” God replies, “I have already long ago provided for them in the Torah the order of sacrifices. Whenever they read it I will deem it as if they had offered them before me and I will grant them pardon for all their iniquities.” At the end of a section discussing prayer in the Tur (Orah Hayyim, chapter 2), Yaakov bar Asher notes that indeed it has come to pass as Abraham foretold and offers a verse from Hosea (14:3) as a solution, “We will offer in Read More >

  • February 28, 2013

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    Cows and Kashering for Pesah

    Passover, or Pesah, marks a half-way point in our Jewish calendar. Though it comes in the first month of the Jewish year, Nissan, it is actually six months since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. During this month before Passover, we mark almost each Shabbat with special preparations for this important holiday. For example, this week is Shabbat Parah when we read an additional portion about the very unusual ritual of the red heifer, the cow that the High Priest sacrificed and whose ashes were then used to purify those made impure via contact with a corpse. There have been efforts made to understand the deeper meaning of this ritual. For example, in Midrash Tanhuma (Hukat, 8) it says:

    “A young woman’s child once dirtied the royal palace. The king said: ‘Let his mother come and clean up her child’s mess.’ By the same token, Read More >

  • February 21, 2013

    By Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    Mitzvah gedolah l’hiyot b’simhah tamid-It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.
    -R. Nachman of Bratslav

    The light is ascending, spring approaches, the season of ge’ulah, of redemption, is upon us and therefore Joy is required! The essence of the celebration of Purim is Joy. The month of Adar is mentioned in the Talmud with the statement: mi’she’nikhnas Adar marbin b’simhah (Ta’anit: 29a)- When the month of Adar begins, one should increase joy. This is contrasted with a previous statement that when the month of Av begins, we should decrease our joy.

    The month of Av brings the fast day of Tisha b’Av in which the destruction of both Temples is memorialized. It is a period of mourning over the exile of the Jewish people and subsequent experiences of persecution through the ages. In contrast, Adar presents an alternate reality- one of ge’ulah- redemption in the face of near Read More >

  • February 6, 2013

    By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

    In this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, “Laws,” we have plummeted from the terse, but exalted proclamation of the Ten Commandments in last week’s reading, Yitro, to the nitty gritty details of everyday life. This section, often referred to as the “Book of the Covenant,” although not exhaustive, as it does not cover every aspect of existence, prescribes rules for a vast range of moral, criminal and civil matters. They range from the treatment of slaves and their families, murder, theft and assault, to behavior towards the stranger and religious observance of the festivals.

    What is amazing is that in the opening verse God instructs Moses to speak to all the people in an inclusive manner, “These are the rules that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21:1) This sets us up with high expectations for what is to follow. None of the other law collections from the Ancient Near Read More >

  • January 31, 2013

    By Rabbi Robert Freedman

    The account in Exodus of the revelation at Sinai emphasizes physical boundaries. “YHVH said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud.'” (Exodus 19:9). “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain will be put to death.'” (19:12) “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish.'” (19:21)

    These boundaries are similar to those set up by the priesthood following the rebellion of Korah and the destruction of his followers. (Numbers 17:27-18:7) They kept all but the ordained priests from coming close to the holiest part of the sanctuary and prevented any non-anointed person from performing the rites of the temple cult. There, as here, the penalty for crossing the boundary was Read More >

  • January 17, 2013

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    The recent tragedy of the cold-blooded shooting of twenty-six young children and four of their adult staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut shocked our entire nation. After ungluing ourselves from the media reports, some of us looked for spiritual and practical ways to express our sorrow and identification with the victims’ families – leading or attending worship services, sending items to help the survivors, signing petitions against gun violence and writing to our congressmen, etc. But I would venture to say that the most prevalent reaction was to contact our children, grandchildren, children of friends and neighbors to make sure they were safe, to offer them an extra hug or bit of loving advice, and probably to whisper a little prayer asking for God’s continued protection of these precious ones. Can we make sense of this and other such violent events that have left Read More >

  • January 17, 2013

    By Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  (Ezek. 36:26)

    In Parashat Va’eira the Torah presents Pharaoh’s response to the successive plagues meted out by God. Seven times we read the refrain that Pharaoh’s heart was either “strengthened” or “hardened” after each plague. At times the phrase “v’lo shama aleihem – and he did not listen to them” is added to the ‘stiffening of the heart’ phrase. Pharaoh is described repeatedly as one with an iron will, or as the Torah implies, an iron heart. He excels at shutting himself off from the suffering of others and the word of God. He appears to cultivate this skill to exquisite proportions despite the plagues, the suffering of his own people and the Read More >

  • December 27, 2012

    By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

    When Is a Blessing a Curse?

    Shabbat provides us with a number of pivotal rituals for transformation. In the home, in particular, the first of these occurs for me after I light the Shabbos candles. Although I have already ignited them, nevertheless, I am filled with joy as I see the candles glimmering the instant I remove my hands from my eyes.

    Ascending the Shabbat ladder, I am brought closest to its promise when I place my hands on my son’s head and chant the traditional blessing “May God bless you as God blessed Ephraim and Menasheh. May the One bless and protect you, illuminate your path with the spirit of holiness, and enable you to live in peace.” My six foot tall son then bows his head, giraffe-like, for me, his five feet five inch mother, to gently brush her lips on his close cropped hair. What ecstasy! Read More >

  • December 20, 2012

    By Rabbi Bob Freedman

    Torah can be read as a treatise on exile. Its stories about being driven out from life’s comfort zone, from family, from community, or from the presence of God, repeat again and again, each time with a different slant. Not all end in return! Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden, and a rotating fiery sword guaranteed that they could not find their way back. Cain, for his sin, was banished from his home and branded so that he could never again have a normal relationship with humanity. Abraham was led out from his birthplace, his land, and his father’s house, and God established him in a new home. Jacob fled the wrath of his brother Esau and never saw his mother again. The family of Yisrael went into exile in Egypt. They came back to their land, as God had promised, but only after Read More >

  • December 6, 2012

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    As many of us exit the theater, having just seen the new Spielberg movie “Lincoln”, we cannot help but think about the impact this great president had on our world to this day through his courageous decision to put an end to slavery in this country. This act of great justice was not only in line with the founding principles of democracy embodied in our Constitution, but also based on the Biblical idea of offering freedom to slaves during the 7th and 50th years of the Hebrew calendar. It opened the door to new life, new opportunities, to the blessings which freedom could bring to a whole race of people who had been so terribly mistreated and forgotten for so long. Slavery is just one form of imprisonment or captivity which we should all be aware of and sensitive to.

    The mitzvah of releasing captives – Pidyon Shevuyim Read More >

  • November 29, 2012

    By Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    This week’s parashah, Va-Yishlah focuses on the homeward journey of Jacob and his family. This entire sidrah seems to swing widely between the poles of blessing and calamity. While the overt context of the parashah focuses on Jacob’s inner and outward journeys, the feminine voices within the family are struck down through tragedy and death. Much as Jacob/Israel can be seen as an archetypal figure representing the Jewish people, so too the loss of the feminine in this parashah may have symbolic significance for the spiritual narrative of the Jewish People.

    The parashah begins with Jacob’s encounter with a mysterious “man” with whom he wrestles and from whom he demands a blessing. He receives a new name, the root of which can be understood as Sar-to exert authority, to master. The implication is that he has mastered some aspect of relationship to both the Divine and to human Read More >

  • November 16, 2012

    How Much Love is Too Much?

    By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

    This week’s parashahToldot, was my son’s Bar Mitzvah portion 13 years ago. I can still vividly recall teaching him Torah and Haftarah chanting. We started nine months before the date because he wanted to read as much of the parashah that he could. This was what his classmates did, and he would not be satisfied with less. I established a routine of daily practice. Often my Jacob reclined and after 10 minutes of fidgeting would brandish his foot in my face. I remained undaunted, determined that he accomplish his goal. To that end I coaxed, coached and threatened “My Little Man” (whose height then matched mine). I believed that he could do it all if he worked hard enough, despite the fact that he was quiet, shy and humble – as he has remained to this day. To my amazement, he recalls nothing of the Read More >

  • November 9, 2012

    By Rabbi Bob Freedman

    I am fascinated by the servant of Abraham whom Abraham charges with the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. It seems likely that the servant is Eliezer of Damascus, whom at one point Abraham wanted to make his heir. Here he is only called eved (servant), but that makes him special, one of only two people whom the Torah specifically so designates. (The other is Moses!) I suggest that by so doing, the Torah is suggesting that we think of Abraham’s servant as a paradigm, a role model for us.

    The servant had earned Abraham’s complete trust. Abraham reciprocated by conferring on him the status of shaliah, his agent who, as Talmudic law stipulates, is considered as the sender himself. Abraham entrusted the servant with ten camel loads of his wealth. Moreover, by making the servant swear on his (Abraham’s) genitals, Abraham symbolically designated him Read More >

  • November 2, 2012

    By Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    This week’s Torah portion tells the story of several crisis points in the life of one ancient family. As the parashah opens, the family constellation includes husband Abraham, first wife- Sarah, surrogate mother-Hagar and the firstborn son of Hagar and Abraham-Ishmael. The text begins with the annunciation of Isaac’s birth. As foretold, Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac at the age of 90. It is difficult to imagine the complicated dynamics in this unusual family situation. As the story unravels before us, so too do these relationships that have been tenuously held together by the need to ensure the future lineage of Abraham.

    For thirteen years Ishmael was the treasured firstborn. Though his mother was first a servant in the household, one might wonder what has become of her status over these years. As the mother of Abraham’s firstborn, what kind of relationship do she Read More >

  • October 12, 2012
    The Story of Creation
    By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

    For rabbis and cantors – as well as for many congregants who are involved in synagogue life, this is the most challenging and stressful time of year. No sooner have we rabbis concluded our Academy Award winning soliloquies and day of starvation than we have to change out of our kittels, or gowns, and go from the divine to the arcane as we wave an odd assortment of flora up, down, left, and right. Talk about stress, pity the left-right dyslexic and large-picture thinkers among us! The grand finale, immense commotion and ceremony surrounding the sacred scrolls before we slump into hol, the daily routine.

    How do we keep the energy going? What magic gets us out of bed and keeps us on the bimah following the high drama of these weeks? What I grapple with the most, however, because I only have High Holiday responsibilities, is: How do Read More >
  • September 6, 2012

    In this week’s Torah portion we are witness to a grand ritual – a dramatization depicting the landscape of choices within which we all reside, at all times. One half of the Israelite tribes are told to stand on Mt. Gerizim while the other half of the tribes are to stand on Mt. Ebal. Between the two mountains lies a valley – middle ground within which the tribe of Levi is to stand. From this middle ground of choice, the Levites call up to those on Mt. Ebal with a series of curses that will result from choices rooted in idolatry, dishonesty, greed and lust. The Levites then call up to those on Mt. Gerizim with a series of blessings that will result from choices to live a life of mitzvot, ethical behavior, honesty and support for the disenfranchised within the community. This is followed by a much more detailed Read More >

  • August 24, 2012

    By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

    Within the last few weeks I, and most likely many of you, have been barraged with email messages asking for donations to the presidential campaign. Initially I read the messages with a skeptical eye, planning to contribute a minimal amount at some future date. However, after viewing notes of alarm in the most recent subject lines, I began to panic. Can my small contribution possibly help any candidate to win against the behemoth fundraising machines in which individuals are contributing tens of millions of dollars, I wondered.

    Nonetheless, despite my better instincts and my loathing for the way in which campaigns are financed in the United States, believing that the government should pay for them to create an even playing field for all potential candidates, not just those connected to wealth, I broke down and made a modest donation. After all what if my candidate loses because I Read More >

  • August 16, 2012

    Expanding Spiritual Consciousness
    By Rabbi Bob Freedman

    In Parashat Va’ethanan we are told that even when we are exiles scattered among peoples who worship gods of wood and stone, “If you search there for YHVH your God you will find God, if you seek with all your heart and all your soul” (4:29). One can seek God in any place, it seems, even the most unlikely.

    However, Deuteronomy also demands the strict centralization of worship into one place. The ruling appears for the first time in our parashah but is repeated throughout the book. Verse 12:2 stipulates the obliteration of worship places scattered throughout the country. Referring to worship described in 12:2-3 that happened “on high mountains, hills, or under luxuriant trees,” 12:4 rules “Do not worship YHVH your God in this way.” Rather, we are directed (12:5, 11 and subsequently) to make our offerings only at the place where God chooses Read More >

  • August 2, 2012

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen O Israel…” Moses recites these lines in this week’s Torah portion at the end of his life. For us, these are usually the first Hebrew words we learn, and we are taught to say them twice daily, morning and evening, on holidays, special occasions, and even before death. This affirmation emphasizes ‘listening’ as we declare that God is ONE. To whom are we making this declaration? And why emphasize listening?

    Rabbi David Hartman, in his book A Living Covenant (1985, The Free Press, pp. 164-165)says that by saying the Sh’ma we are actually recreating the Sinai experience for ourselves – listening for that still small voice of God. We tune out the distractions of our world and focus on the question which Moses emphasized and that God asks us everyday: Are we ready to become a partner with God in this world, willing to Read More >

  • July 26, 2012

    By Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    This week’s Torah portion  “ D’varim  “ opens the book of Deuteronomy, throughout which Moses delivers an exhaustive farewell speech to the people of Israel, recounting their history, reviewing many of the laws given at Sinai and adding new laws for a future life in the promised land. The portion begins with the words Eleh ha-d’varim, meaning: these are the words, that Moses spoke. From this opening statement is derived the name for the fifth book of Torah  “ D’varim /Deuteronomy.

    Many Sages and rabbis in our tradition point out that when Moses was first initiated into the role of God’s emissary to Pharaoh, he resisted the task, claiming Lo ish d’varim anochi  “ “I am not a man of words. And yet, forty years later Moses has indeed become a man of words. In D’varim Rabba (a tenth-century collection of midrash compiled in the tenth century from much earlier material), the Read More >

  • July 19, 2012

    Divided We Stand, United We Fall: Not Much Has Changed

    I recall the period following the ’67 war when many Jews, religious and not, swelled with pride, kvelled, at what “our” tiny nation in the desert, surrounded by enemies, had accomplished. Some of us, so inspired by the military miracle, made aliyah, moved there permanently.

    Notwithstanding the enthusiasm, the vast majority of Jews remained in their “native” lands. Little could induce most of us in the USA to emigrate because we had successfully assimilated and felt secure here.

    Today about half the Jews in the world live in Eretz Israel and the other half outside it. These statistics cause some Israelis to delegitimize the loyalty of those of us outside. But the truth is that it’s always been this way.

    The first of this week’s double parashah, Mattot, “Tribes,” is the earliest depiction of this conflict, as two of the tribes, the Gadites and Read More >

  • July 5, 2012

    Out of Left Field: The Portion of Balak
    By Rabbi Bob Freedman

    Just at a point in the narrative of Numbers when the Israelites have begun to fight for the land that God has promised them comes the story of Bil’am. It seems to say, “Dear reader, maybe at this point in our story you fear that Israel is not doing well. Yes, they can fight, but at spiritual constancy or keeping purity of purpose, their record is truly dismal. Yet don’t despair; take a step back to see the bigger picture. Even now on the far heights of Mt. Pisgah God is readying the seer Bil’am, against his will, to bring blessing on Israel.”

    This Bil’am story is odd. It is by far the longest of the very few narratives in the Torah that are not about events directly experienced by the generation of the Exodus or about their history. The Israelites Read More >

  • June 7, 2012

    Someone gives you a gift and says, “Here, I was saving this for just the right moment.” That is what I love about discovering new insights in the Torah; it was there all along just waiting for the right moment to be revealed. The first paper I wrote in rabbinical school was based on a few verses from this week’s parashah, Beha’alotkha; Numbers 11:24-29 to be exact (see these verses below). Consumed with both the concept, reality and authenticity of prophecy as I was at that time, here was a treasure trove of material. We do not sometimes see the words that can change our lives, we are not given the meaning until it means something to US. Well, that’s the whole point, that’s why we keep at it. Now, after years of rabbinic training and more years of life experience, I see something I missed back then; what I Read More >

  • June 4, 2012

    “And now, gentlemen,” said d’Artagnan, without stopping to explain his conduct to Porthos, “All for one, one for all–that is our motto, is it not?”
    “And yet–” said Porthos.
    “Hold out your hand and swear!” cried Athos and Aramis at once.
    Overcome by example, grumbling to himself, nevertheless, Porthos stretched out his hand, and the four friends repeated with one voice the formula dictated by d’Artagnan:  “All for one, one for all.”
    From The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, Chapter 9.

    When I speak to the staff at the regional medical center on the subject of treating Jewish patients, one of the first things I say to them, is that Jews, like all of their patients, have to be treated as individuals.  For we come in different denominations, with differing views on what our tradition teaches.  This has been true for centuries.  The Pharisees held that the soul lives on after death; the Sadducees held Read More >

  • May 9, 2012

    Mitzvah, Not Magic

    By Rabbi Allen Darnov

    Parashat Emor begins with laws restricting the priests, the sons of Aaron, from contact with the dead: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any (dead) person among his kin” (Lev 21:1). Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, 13th century, France) comments that this passage appears here by design. It follows immediately upon the last verse of Parashat Kedoshim which condemns to death anybody who summons or communicates with the dead: “A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones…” (20:27). Hizkuni states, “…one must stone the necromancer, because Israel has no use for them; but were you to have need of an oracle, ‘speak to the priests’ and they will inquire for you Read More >

  • May 3, 2012

    By Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

    Turning Mundane Holiness into Sacred Holiness

    I often wonder how an esoteric term like “holy” entered our lexicon. People use terms like “Holier than Thou”, “Holy Smokes” or “Holy Cow” all the time. These terms probably have no real meaning to those who use them, other than being a figure of speech. For me, however, holiness has a spiritual and divine quality, which ideally should be experienced in a serene environment. The reality is that I live in a busy and “noisy” culture. I ask myself; “Do I even recognize the difference between what is holy and what is not? How am I supposed to feel when I encounter a holy moment or a sacred experience right here, in my own back yard”?

    This week’s double portion allows us to grasp what holiness is and how to achieve it in our lives. There are three Read More >

  • April 26, 2012

    By Rabbi Eric Milgrim

    Our Torah is divided into 54 regular parashiyot. In a leap year (7 times in every 19 year cycle) each parashah is read on a separate Shabbat so that the annual cycle of Torah readings are able to come at its proper time. In a “common” year certain parashyot are combined like Tazria and Metzora so that the annual cycle of Torah readings will happen in its proper time. (Since Parashat “Tzav” is supposed to be read on a Shabbat prior to Passover, therefore, Tazria and Metzora are combined.) Read More >

  • April 19, 2012

    Untimely Death and the “Pesikta D’Rav Kahana”

    By Rabbi Paul Bender

    Parashat Shemini and its normally coupled Haftarah (II Samuel 6:1-7:17) both contain stories of the unnatural and instantaneous death by God’s hand, of apparently well meaning and respected characters, two sons of Aaron’s and Uzzah. To explain these troubling stories, and justify the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Hazal (our Sages) felt the need to provide a list of their errors and sins. But why would God cause or permit the death of people who are attempting to do good in the world? In my chaplaincy training at Sloan Kettering, a distraught husband, whose wife had ovarian cancer, with only weeks to live, came up to me and said Rabbi, how can Hashem take her so soon after our marriage? He must honor our Ketubah; how can He allow this? The grief felt by family is often indescribable. Even in the face Read More >

  • April 12, 2012

    By Simcha Raphael, PhD

    Yizkor – Remembrance of Souls on the Eighth Day of Passover

    On the eighth day of Passover we recite Yizkor prayers in memory of deceased family members. In our contemporary society, we think of Yizkor as an efficacious bereavement ritual honoring and remembering deceased loved ones. However, underlying the origins of Yizkor was a different worldview, one that assumed consciousness survives bodily death, and that through prayer and charity one could have a beneficent impact on the soul of the deceased. Understanding this view more fully, and exploring the historical evolution of Yizkor, can add a depth of meaning to our Yizkor prayers this year.

    Earliest references to prayers for the dead date back to Hasmonean times. Judah Maccabee and cohorts offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of fallen comrades “that they might be set free from their sins” (II Macc. 12:45). In Rabbinic teachings, Read More >

  • March 29, 2012

    By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips

    WHO S ROBBING GOD?

    The future of life on earth depends upon whether we among the richest fifth of the world s people, having fully met our material needs, can turn to non-material sources of fulfillment.

    Alan Durning, How Much Is Enough? (Worldwatch Institute, 1992)

    Every year, I draw upon an ancient rabbinic ritual to transfer ownership of all hametz (leaven) in my home for the duration of Passover. Like many Jews, when I  œsell  my hametz before Passover, I actually  œbuy  a donation of ma ot hittin (portions of wheat) for those in need. This reminds me that preparing my home for the holiday includes concern for those outside my home. Read More >

  • March 22, 2012

    by Rabbi Sanford Olshansky

    Many American Jews say they don’t like ritual. Nevertheless, most of us are creatures of ritual, although we may call it habit.We have rituals for how we begin our day and prepare for work, whether or not we include traditional prayers. Parashat Vayikra, the first portion of the book of Leviticus (Sefer Vayikra in Hebrew), is almost entirely about ritual – specifically the offering of sacrifices.In ancient Israel, until formal prayer services developed, probably in response to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, C.E., sacrifices were the main method of worshipping God. These sacrifices addressed needs that we still experience today.

    One of the strongest human emotions is guilt.We need ways to deal with feelings of guilt – as individuals and as communities. In Leviticus this is accomplished through sacrifice rather than other methods (Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, San Francisco, 2001, p. Read More >

  • March 1, 2012

    By Rabbi Jaron Matlow

    On the Shabbat before Purim we read the special Maftir reminding us of our obligation to FORGET AMALEK. On Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of remembrance, we read (Deuteronomy 25:17-19):

    Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary… Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around… you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.

    The name Amalek carries a special meaning in Jewish tradition. It is used to refer to the arch-enemy of the Jewish people at the time in question. We have a tradition that that Haman is a descendent of Amalek. We have referred to Hitler Read More >

  • February 23, 2012

    By Rabbi Greg Schindler

    “You’re not listening to me, are you?

    The words cut me to the quick. I, in fact, have no idea what was being said for the last minute or so.

    We’ve all been there — a family member or friend is talking to us, and what are we doing? We are daydreaming, checking our cell phone, or thinking about what we intend to say next. What we’re not doing, is listening. Read More >

  • February 16, 2012

    Getting by with a Little Help from our Friends

    By Rabbi Peggy Berman de Prophetis

    Parashat Mishpatim presents us with information overload-rules, rules, and more rules. And even though the Israelites promise that “all that the Lord has spoken we will do and obey” (Ex. 24:7), they sometimes need reminding, for they are no more and no less than imperfect, fallible human beings. And so are we all.

    On reading Mishpatim this time around, Exodus 21: 28-29 called out to me: “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, the ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and, it kills a man or a woman-the ox shall be stoned and its owner, Read More >

  • February 2, 2012

    By Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath

    There were no auditions!! There were no judges!! That’s right. You heard it here first. When Moses and the Israelites sang on the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:1) and when Miriam and all the women danced with hand-drums (Exodus 15:20) no leader said, “why don’t you just mouth the words,” or “why don’t you stand there and hold up the scenery.” No Israelite man or woman said, “I’ll just sit here quietly, I don’t know the words, I don’t know the steps, you take my part.” Moses and Miriam didn’t say, “we need producers, we need a studio, we need electronics, we need editing, gotta get this right!!” Moses and Miriam and the Israelites – together – raised their voices and moved their bodies in thanksgiving and praise.

    We’re often shamed into silence. My college freshman voice teacher told me, “no one will ever pay to hear Read More >

  • January 25, 2012

    By Rabbi Allen Darnov

    Parashat Bo announces: “This month (Nissan) shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you….” (Exod 12:2). This sounds, of course, as if the Torah is commanding a New Year’s festival to be observed in the spring. Should we be confused that the Torah posts two different New Years (one in the spring and one in the fall), Nahmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, also known as Ramban) comes to our aid. He calls Tishrei the “beginning of years” (since Creation) while he refers to Nissan as the “beginning of months” since the Exodus from Egypt. By having Israel number their months in relation to Nissan, we would always keep in mind the miracle of the Exodus and our freedom. Thus, when the Torah calls for a day of blasting the ram’s horn “in the Read More >

  • January 18, 2012

    By Rabbi Aryeh Meir

    The previous parashah ends with the failure of Moshe’s first attempt to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Moshe reiterates his earlier doubts about his ability to lead saying, “for what reason have you sent me… You have not rescued your people!” (Exodus 5:22-23). God then repeats the promise made at the burning bush regarding the covenant with the patriarchs and the certainty of the coming liberation from bondage: “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel; I am YHWH; I will bring you out from beneath the burdens of Egypt, I will rescue you from servitude to them, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, with great acts of judgment…I will bring you into the land… (and) I will give it to you as a possession” (Exodus 6:6-8).

    Why the repetition? Moshe, so unsure of himself, and having confronted the Egyptian despot and seen his unshakeable will Read More >

  • January 12, 2012

    By Professor Jerome Chanes

    The opening chapters of the Book of Exodus relate a narrative that is strange, not in its story, but in its telling; it is a book that begins V’eleh shemot, “And these are the names . . .,” but there are no names! There are names of the Jacob’s family who came down to Egypt, but the individuals centrally involved in the story of this book are not identified by name. We know all the characters, Yocheved and Miriam and Amram and Pharaoh’s daughter-but no one is named in the text (for example: “And a son of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi . . .”). Most striking, the little boy has no name. His mother does not name him; Pharaoh’s daughter finally, the second time around, does name him, as “Moses.”

    In fact, our hero has no name.

    What the Book of Exodus is about a Read More >

  • December 27, 2011

    The Moment of Impact

    By Cantor Marcia Lane

     

    In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes the moment when a situation changes, the small thing that had a big impact on a problem or a situation.

    In this week’s parashah we come to the moment in a long narrative when life will change for each of the participants in the drama. Joseph sits, disguised as the Pharaoh’s viceroy, watching his brothers try desperately to get out of the seemingly impossible situation they are in. Do they leave their brother Benjamin behind, go home and break the bad news to dad? Do they argue, fight, reason? How can they win his freedom without sacrificing their own? The sum total of what they think they know is only a fraction of what is actually happening. Joseph holds all the cards. He knows who they are, what they have done, what he has done to Read More >

  • December 15, 2011

    By Rabbi Andrea Myers

     

    Years ago, I took a road trip to Cincinnati to do research at the archives of Hebrew Union College. It was my first time away from home since our daughter Ariella had been born four years before.

    In preparation for my departure, my partner Lisa asked me whether I needed anything sent to the dry cleaners, and I asked her to send my pea coat so I would be warm in the cold Cincinnati spring. She was kind enough to do so, but busy enough that she did not check the pockets. We realized, too late, that my wallet was inside. We called the dry cleaners, who told us it was nowhere to be found. We were rabbinic enough to want to give the benefit of the doubt, and New Yorkers enough that we were skeptical. We went that night to the premises, and found the remains of Read More >

  • December 7, 2011

    By Miriam Herscher

     

    “I am Jacob. I am going home, and I am anxious and scared.

    “I have been away for twenty years. I have not spoken to nor seen my brother or parents in all that time. We parted under horrendous circumstances. I cheated my brother, with the help of my mother, and stole his birthright blessing from our father. It should have been his. But he did actually say once that I could have it; one day he came home from hunting and wanted the food that I had cooked. In exchange for it I asked him to sell me his birthright, and he did.

    “Now, I know my father is still alive, and I want to try to reconcile with my brother. But I am terrified of his anger. Maybe he still wants to kill me. Is reconciliation possible after all these years? Will he forgive me? Can there even Read More >

  • November 30, 2011

    By Susan Elkodsi

     

    “And Jacob left Beersheva, and he went to Haran. And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set” (Gen. 28:10-11).

    The term bashert is often used when speaking about falling in love, or when something happens that we truly feel was “meant to be.” We read that Jacob was forced to camp out bamakom, “at the place,” on his way from Beersheva to Haran, because the sun had set. The intellectual, left side of my brain knows that it would have been dangerous for him to continue traveling in the dark, but the more creative, right side of my brain, is convinced that it was bashert that he stopped in this particular place. It was here, bamakom, that Jacob had the dream about angels going up and down a ladder, and when he awakened from his sleep, he said, Akhen, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va’anokhi lo yadati, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, Read More >

  • November 24, 2011

    Don’t Forget the Lentils

    By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

    What about the lentils?

    “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished’- which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ And Esau said, ‘I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright(Gen 25:29-34, New JPS translation).

    We, along with the commentators, tend to focus on the people in this and other biblical stories, trying to gain insight into the meaning of the Read More >

  • November 15, 2011

    By Cantor Jaclyn Chernett

     

    Traditionally, in Kol Nefesh, our little shul in London, this sedra marks the annual celebration for our Hevra Kadisha, when we study and have a meal together. The Hevra Kadisha it is, literally, a Sacred Society that, among other things, ritually prepares bodies of those who have died, for their final rest. Ironically, this year it coincides with Brian’s and my Golden Wedding anniversary and although my heart sank at the sobering thought of finding an analogy between our simha and burial, it is actually apposite! The stories in our sedra show the family of Abraham move from death (first that of Sarah) to marriage (of Isaac and Rebecca) to death (of Abraham and Ishmael). While on the surface these links seem rather shocking, they heighten awareness of how Jewish tradition helps us to try to understand the world and to live in alignment with our deepest Read More >

  • November 3, 2011

    By Simcha Raphael

    I imagine it was a crystal clear desert night in Haran. Standing under a glittering band of stars adorning ancient Mesopotamian skies, Abram son of Terah suddenly heard a beckoning voice:

    Abram! Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3)

    In Parashat Lekh Lekha, Abraham is called by G!d to sojourn to Canaan and in so doing, becomes the progenitor of the Jewish people and ultimately, the Abrahamic religions. Here we encounter the classical calling of the hero (see Joseph Campbell, Hero with A Thousand Faces). Responding to a divine calling, an individual embarks upon a journey into the unknown, following their destiny and becoming an agent for Read More >

  • October 25, 2011

    By Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay

    As I write this D’var Torah, “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold” and I hum the Frank Sinatra song and thank God for giving us daylight and nightlight and four seasons. I re-read the verse from Parashat Noah, “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22) and I smile in gratitude. God turned away from further destruction after The Flood and, in choosing life, gave Noah and his family and generations to follow the turning of day into night and into day and night again and the autumn leaves of red and gold. No more precious gift has been given to humankind than sunrise and sunset and the turning of one season into another.

    I am living the second cycle of seasons since my Read More >

  • October 25, 2011

    By Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay

    As I write this D’var Torah, “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold” and I hum the Frank Sinatra song and thank God for giving us daylight and nightlight and four seasons. I re-read the verse from Parashat Noah, “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22) and I smile in gratitude. God turned away from further destruction after The Flood and, in choosing life, gave Noah and his family and generations to follow the turning of day into night and into day and night again and the autumn leaves of red and gold. No more precious gift has been given to humankind than sunrise and sunset and the turning of one season into another.

    I am living the second cycle of seasons since my Read More >

  • October 12, 2011

    By Rabbi Margaret Frisch-Klein

    Sitting in a private bathroom stall on Rosh Hashanah at the synagogue, I notice a sign for a hotline for domestic abuse. At first I am saddened that we need such signs. Then I am relieved that we are beginning to acknowledge that domestic abuse happens even in the Jewish community. Then I am hopeful that another woman sitting there will know she is not alone.

    Now it is Sukkot, zeman simhatenu, the time of our joy. The harvest is in. It is time to celebrate. On Sukkot the commandment is to sit in our sukkah, a fragile temporary booth open to the elements. Even though it is fragile, I love to sit in my sukkah, watching the evening sky, the moon rise, and the geese fly overhead. It reclaims a sense of peace, wholeness. It wasn’t always so.

    Not everyone feels joy at Sukkot. If you are sitting Read More >

  • September 26, 2011

    Connecting with God

    By Marian Kleinman

    In the story of the sacrifice of Isaac we read on Rosh HaShanah, the sacrifice asked of Abraham can be explored as symbolic of relationships such as the relationship between ourselves and God.

    In today’s society, individuals are frowned upon or shunned if they tell others they are “hearing God” or hearing voices. In some of our most popular literature, this attitude is prevalent. For example, in Rowley’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hermione, one of Harry’s sidekicks, warns Harry, “Even in the wizarding world, hearing voices isn’t a good sign.”

    For at least one week this past May, there was much conversation and discussion. Many people wondered and worried that the world was going to end on May 21 at 6:30 am. This was all because an evangelical broadcaster spoke and the media spread his words! If people weren’t worried, they were laughing Read More >

  • September 22, 2011

    By Rabbi Robert Freedman

    Two phrases vie for the honor of being the most important in the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Humanity was made in the divine image.” Humbly I’d like to nominate another for one of the top ten. The verse is, “For the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). No other verse in Torah offers as strong reassuring certainty that we need not be confused or despairing about where to find life’s instruction manual.

    At one time Moses protested that he was not a man of words, that for him speech was difficult and his lips were not fluent. But forty years later he preached the words of Deuteronomy. Throughout a full day he held forth, concluding by saying that the thing, the commandment, was not too far away or too difficult, “rather it is Read More >

  • September 14, 2011

    By Rabbi Jaron Matlow

     

    Lately I have been focusing on Theodicy, the problem of evil in the world. Over the last several years, I have experienced a number of health issues that left me on total disability. In Parashat Ekev, we are told that if we follow God s Torah, God  œwill remove all sickness from you  (Deut. 7:15). God states further  œI am your Healer  (Exodus 15:26). So naturally I ask myself the question,  œIf I m suffering all these things, am I being punished, and given the suffering of others, are they being punished? Have we not followed Torah and Halakha sufficiently? 

    Our Parashah, Ki Tavo, is noted for the Tokhehot, the warnings and curses, if we don t follow Torah. In it we find Yak kha YHVH bishhin Mitzrayim uvat horim uvagarav uvehares asher lo tukhal l heirafei. Yak kha YHVH b shiga on u v ivaron u v timhon leivav,  œGod will strike Read More >

  • September 8, 2011

    September 11th: Remembering to Forget, Forgetting to Remember

    By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips

     

    “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, in your going-out from Egypt….erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17, 19).

    As we approach the 10th anniversary of the tragedies that shook our city, our nation and our world, the final words of this week’s Torah portion are stark: Evil can be personified, and Amalek − the personification of evil throughout the ages − must be destroyed.

    Yet questions present themselves. How do we “Remember” to “erase…memory”? If memory is erased, how can we “not forget”? And how do we understand exactly “what Amalek did”?

    In the original narrative, we are told only that “Amalek came and fought with Israel” (Exodus 17:8). As the story is retold in this week’s portion, we learn of Amalek that “he tailed you, all the weakened-ones behind you; and Read More >

  • September 6, 2011

    Ki ata ba el-ha’aretz, asher Adonai Elohekha notein lekha-lo tilmad la’asot, keto’avot hagoyim haheim, “When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations” (Deut 18:9).

    In Parashat Shoftim, the land of which Moses speaks is the Promised Land, and his warning is specified in subsequent verses. We are to stay away from human sacrificing, divination, soothsayers, enchanters, sorcerers, charmers, wizards, and necromancers. There are no shortcuts and no special intermediaries.

    Moses then continues his teaching: Tamim tihyeh, im Adonai Elohekha,”Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the Lord thy God” (Deut. 18:13). We are to be “whole-hearted” with Adonai our God. The Hertz commentary (p.827) cites Rashi’s interpretation of verse 13: “Walk with Him whole-heartedly and hope in Him. Pry not into the veiled future, but accept whatever lot befalls you. Then will you be His people Read More >

  • August 31, 2011

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut and Cantor Liat Pelman

    A Dialogue on Blessings vs. “Curses

    Dorit: As we approach the month of Elul next week and thoughts of Rosh HaShanah are not far off, we are confronted by a verse in this week’s Torah portion:

    “See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God….” (Deut.11:26-28, NewJPS translation).

    How do we understand this verse really? Is this loving, all-powerful God also One who “curses” humans?

    Liat: I am so grateful that you chose to put the word “curses” in quotation marks. Reading the Torah literally, as in this verse, is a turn-off for me; I relate to the saying: Life is hard, but God is good-all the time.

    Dorit: Read More >

  • August 10, 2011

    By Cantor Marcia Lane

    In this second parashah in the book of Deuteronomy Moses continues his long death-bed peroration to the Israelite people. He reiterates the division of the land to the tribes, restates (with minor differences) the Aseret HaDibrot  “ commonly called the Ten Commandments  “ and states the most primary faith-statement of Judaism, the Shema. Here, in one neat package, is the legal and emotional basis for Jewish thought and practice. Creed and deed, paired in the same parashah.

    In the Torah portion, Moshe tells the people of the dangers of worshipping anything other than God.  œFor your own sake, be very careful  “ since you saw no shape when Adonai, your God spoke to you in fire at Horeb  “ not to make for yourself a sculpted image. ¦  (Deut. 4:15-16). And this is such a potent theme for Moshe that he says again,  œTake care not to forget the Read More >

  • August 3, 2011

    Vision, Lamentation, and the Question of “How?”

    By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips

    The Shabbat on which the first portion of Deuteronomy is chanted from the Torah each year is called Shabbat Hazon ”the  œSabbath of Vision.  Its name comes most directly from the accompanying haftarah or prophetic reading, which proclaims “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amotz, which he envisioned over Judah and Jerusalem…  (Isaiah 1:1).

    At first glance, the  œvision  of these paired Torah and haftarah readings seems to be one of impending doom more than anything else. Each reading anticipates the imminent arrival of Tisha b’Av, our Jewish day of tragedy and mourning, during which we read the book that is called Lamentations in English and Eikha in Hebrew. Read More >

  • July 21, 2011

    By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

    Finding Our Way Out of Helplessness

    Peep! Peep! Peep! The brood of baby chicks – domesticated or wild I do not know – was scurrying and moving en mass, with loose chicks running off in every direction, peeping. They kept scurrying into the street, a busy street, and it was dark out. Desperately I tried to shoo the little guys onto the sidewalk. But they kept constantly moving back and forth and this way and that way, all the time peeping, peeping, peeping. And no mother in sight. I was terribly distressed. I didn’t want them to get run over. But I didn’t know what to do! Finally, seeing the unending nature of trying to keep them off the street, I left the chicks behind and went inside.

    In this week’s parashah, God tells Moses, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites” (Num. 31:1). Read More >

  • July 14, 2011

    By Peter Levy

    Parashat Pinhas

    My wife, Amy, and I just returned from opening day at the URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington,  Massachusetts. It was wonderful to see kids gathering together and greeting each other after months of separation. They had kept in touch via Facebook and other social media over the winter, but the physical proximity was what made it special. It was heart-warming to see the campers hugging each other in greeting.However, we also learned about something called a “sideways hug.”  Apparently this is the proper way for counselors to hug the campers in order to avoid physical contact that might be construable is “inappropriate.” Yes, physical contact is potentially taboo and needs to be handled delicately.

    This is in contrast to our parashah this week, Pinhas.  Here, in Numbers 27:18, Moses is told to ordain Joshua, “v’samakhta et yad’kha alav“, “and lay your hand on Read More >

  • July 7, 2011

    By Hazzan Marcia Lane

    In our parashah, we have the story of Balak, king of Moav, who sends emissaries promising wealth to a certain prophet, Bilaam son of Be’or, if Bilaam will curse the Israelites. We know Bilaam is a real prophet because the Torah says, “those who you bless are truly blessed and those you curse are cursed.” (Num. 22:6) That is, Bilaam‘s prophecies come to pass. Not only that, but we know Bilaam is on the up-and-up because he says – repeatedly – to these messengers, “I can only do what Adonai tells me.” In fact, Bilaam says, no matter how much gold and silver Balak gives, “I can do nothing small or great contrary to the word of Adonai, my God.” How extraordinary that Bilaam clearly understands that his power, his ability to bless or curse, comes Read More >

  • July 5, 2011

    By Simon Rosenbach

    Many years ago, a friend proposed that we write a book: Management Lessons From the Torah. We never wrote the book, but this week’s parashah provides a fascinating management lesson. It involves the waters of Merivah.

    We all know the story. The Israelites encamped at Kadesh and, as usual, started to complain. This time, they complained that here they were, stuck in the desert, and there was no water.

    As usual, Moses went to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, to consult God. As usual, God provided instructions. In this case, God told Moses to order a rock to produce water, and it would. Read More >

  • June 23, 2011

    By Rabbi Jo David

    Korah Wasn’t Wrong?

    For the last six months I’ve been teaching a comparative religion course – “The Religious Experience” – at Berkeley College in Manhattan. The student body at Berkeley is predominantly black, Hispanic, and Christian, with a large number of foreign students, many from Africa. There are very few Jews on staff. Few students have ever met a Jewish person, not to mention a rabbi or a female rabbi! This is my ideal rabbinate – putting myself in settings where “no Jew has gone before” and introducing Judaism to people for whom Judaism is an unknown quantity.

    This is challenging territory. Inevitably there are a few religious Christians in my class who are eager to show off their knowledge of Judaism and to bond with me over our “shared” faith. It’s a tricky business to explain Read More >

  • June 16, 2011

    In this week’s parashah we read about the spies, twelve tribal leaders selected by Moses for a forty day reconnaissance mission to report on the nature of the Promised Land.

    After traversing wilderness and mountainous terrain, the men returned and described a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Num. 13:27). With hyperbole and distortion, ten of the spies also reported how the land devours its inhabitants, the people are exceedingly fierce, and the cities fortified, populated with giants (Num. 13:28, 32-33). This news bulletin evoked intense fear among the Israelites, nearly catalyzing a popular revolt.

    In understanding Torah, I search for an inner, psycho-spiritual dimension. This approach is comparable to the allegorical interpretations of Philo, and the Hasidic Masters who tend to psychologize elements and characters in Torah.

    The Passover Haggadah reads: Hayav Adam li’rot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza miMitzraim Read More >

  • June 10, 2011

    By Eliana Falk

    A friend of mine has a lapel button that I love. It boasts the standard red circle and slash of caution printed over the word “WHINING.”

    NO WHINING.

    And now that we are wandering Bemidbar, “in the wilderness,” it seems that we will hear almost nothing else from the Israelites. Indeed, Beha’alot’kha is replete with tales of disappointments, greed and desperation on the part of the Israelites, and frustration on the parts of God and Moses.

    What lessons can we learn? The wisdom of walking willingly to the place God leads us, the troubles we bring upon ourselves when we cease to appreciate our blessings and allow our anxieties to motivate us and yes, learning to trust God. Read More >

  • June 2, 2011

    By Hayley Siegel

    The middle section of this week’s parashah, Naso, is definitively not for the faint of heart. As the text describes, God instructs Moses how B’nei Yisrael should deal with a woman accused of adultery by her husband. Upon suspicion of infidelity, the woman was to be brought to the Sanctuary by her husband where they would meet the Kohen. After the husband presented the Kohen with a minhat kena’ot (Num. 5:18),a “meal offering of jealousy,” the Kohen would then begin a ritual designed to establish the veracity of the husband’s claims. The Kohen would first expose the accused wife’s hair, an action of dishonor and shame for the woman. Following the embarrassing revelation of her hair, the accused woman would undergo a “trial by ordeal” to identify her guilt. She would take an oath and then drink a special concoction, which was comprised Read More >

  • May 25, 2011

    By Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay

    The fourth book of our Torah is called BeMidbar in Hebrew, meaning, “in the desert,” and Numbers in English, referring to the first parashah (also called BeMidbar) in which we learn the numbers of men of military age who would defend the Israelites in the event of attack. In the second book of our Torah, Exodus, Moses had begun to lead the Israelites “in the desert” on their journey to the Promised Land of Canaan. Here, the journey continues.

    The Israelites were a well-ordered people: the numbers of men able to bear arms is determined:the Kohanim, the Levites and Kohathites are given their specific responsibilities with respect to the Tabernacle while the other Israelites would be camped in four groups under their ancestral banners around the Tabernacle. These are a people to be reckoned with: Read More >

  • May 18, 2011

    By Rabbi Halina Rubinstein

    In this week’s portion, the last in the Book of Leviticus, Moses relates to the people of Israel the blessings that God will bestow if they obey God’s commandments and the curses in store for them if they don’t. Behukotai raises serious questions about divine justice. For sure, following mitzvot framed in the ethical precepts of Judaism leads to a better world, regardless of our reward; indifference and neglect cause many of the scourges described in our parashah. But are they punishments? And, are the blessings in life rewards?

    I understand this parashah as an assertion that everything in nature is a consequence or effect of God’s will; that the real drama of life is not between man and nature but a moral drama between man and God. This reminds me of something I experienced in a Read More >

  • May 4, 2011

    By Rabbi Bob Freedman

    It’s surprising that there is no blessing to be said before giving tzedakah. Certainly it’s an important mitzvah, but unlike other mitzvot that require us to say a formula to engage mind and spirit before we do them, there’s no such requirement for giving. A passage in our parashah offers a clue as to why this is so.

    Appended to the instructions for offering the omer and first fruits, and not eating the new grains before making an offering is a reminder about leaving the gleanings and the corners of the field for the poor (Lev. 23:22-23). But being the second time it’s mentioned (see Lev 19:9-10), here it may teach something new. The first time it’s mentioned, the instruction follows those for a thanks offering, as if to say (see Ibn Ezra there) that just as Read More >

  • April 27, 2011

    By Rabbi Maralee Gordon

    We learn from Rabbi Akiva that the greatest principle in the Torah is V’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha– Love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).  That teaching is found in this week’sparashah, Kedoshim, part of the Holiness Code.  Sometimes we stop reading at that point in the text; after all, that’s the pinnacle-or is it?

    A story:  When I learned that immigrants were being detained by the federal government in the county jail two miles from my home in Woodstock, Illinois, I applied to be a member of the interfaith ministry allowed in to provide pastoral counseling to these detainees once a week.  I was propelled by my innate sense of being the child of immigrants, even though both of my grandmothers were born in Chicago.  We all tell the story of where our families came from, why they left, how they got started in this country.  I have a poster photograph of Maxwell Street ca. 1905 in which Read More >

  • March 17, 2011

    By Cantor Robin Joseph

    So, there was this man . . . who was so unhappy with his life . . . he grumbled, complained, and was not grateful for anything. One day the Angel of Death came to him and said, “OK-time’s up; you’re coming with me.” The misanthrope suddenly perks up and pleads with the Angel of Death to spare him. “I’ll do anything!” he says. “Just please don’t take me now!”

    The Angel of Death makes him a deal: “Every day that you find something to bless in your life, everyday that you find something different to thank God for, is another day that I’ll let you live. But as soon as you stop, I will come back for you.”

    The man agrees and the Angel of Death departs.

    Amazingly enough, this man does find something different to bless and Read More >

  • March 10, 2011

    By Cantor Jacklyn Chernett

    Leviticus, or Torat Kohanim, from the beginning, seems like an endless list of intricate sacrifices, the concept of which is almost anathema to us in our time. The sacrificial cult is difficult for us to comprehend. Expiation for sin is now dealt with in differing ways – (know a good therapist?) – and prayer has taken over where ritual slaughter and dashing of blood came to an end with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Or did it?

    In 1993, we had the privilege of travelling to Nepal. We stayed at the foothills of the Himalayas and our guide asked us if we would like to attend a sacrifice. Horrified but enthralled, we asked about it. “We sacrifice twice a week” said the guide. The following Tuesday we were taken up into the hills. The vehicle Read More >

  • March 10, 2011
    By Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein
    “On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 40:2). This is taken to mean the first of the month of Nissan.
    Here in the Northeast, it has been a long, hard winter. Snow continues to fall lightly and we are dreaming of spring. I don’t know about you, but in my house the discussion has already turned to Passover cleaning. My daughter even came home from college to jumpstart the process. I usually try to stay out of the angst this process provokes and I am usually unsuccessful. Our text gives us a different model.
    Not quite a year after the Exodus, God commands the Israelites to build a mishkan, a tabernacle. They have turned their attention to homebuilding and homemaking. And what attention to Read More >
  • February 24, 2011

    By Dr. Diane Sharon

    In Parashat Va-Yakhel, Moses gathers the entire community of Israel together, and repeats to them all the plans for the holy Tabernacle that will be God’s dwelling place during the wilderness passage from Sinai to Canaan.

    The community of Israel, newly chastened after the apostasy of the Molten Calf, newly rededicated to their faith in the God who brought them out of Egypt, is waiting to hear from Moses all that God has told him during his long absence on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. They are breathlessly wondering what new commands there will be, beyond the Ten Commandments and all of Mishpatim, the laws, that God has set forth in earlier chapters of Exodus. They expect something new, perhaps something surprising. Read More >

  • February 15, 2011

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    As a young girl, I was often warned when thinking about something not to wrinkle my forehead lest I end up with the multi-lined foreheads of my uncle and my grandfather, a positive physical feature for them as serious, male, patent attorneys. When I first heard that emotions and experiences could be etched into our faces as in the expression “It was written all over his forehead,” I began to periodically examine my forehead and look at others this way as well. Then this week I came upon the probable origins of all this forehead attention as I read in our Torah portion, Exodus 28:36-38:

    “You shall make a frontlet of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: ‘Holy to the Lord’ … It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may take away any sin arising from the holy Read More >

  • February 2, 2011
    by Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum

    We’ve just passed through January, so Americans now emerge from our Festivals of Football and Fast Food Feasting. Some hold season tickets and don’t miss a game. Some go occasionally, braving frigid winds to cheer their teams to victory. Some bring a dish to Superbowl parties or take a peek at clever commercials. Some catch a score and some await the headlines. Some do not relate at all to the festivities or the baffling sport.

    It’s much the same in the Jewish world, if we believe studies on synagogue or organizational affiliation. Some are avid supporters year ’round and make attendance a priority. Others enjoy the spectacle of a special holiday service or pitch in to help a cause that means something to them personally. Some show Read More >

  • January 26, 2011

    This week I have mid-terms. Oh, no-wait. Not me. I meant my son has mid-terms this week. Not sure what I was thinking . . . except that any time my 13-year-old son has heavy testing, I seem to get enlisted into helping him sort through all the course information that has been administered to him over the past few months. He and I have different ideas of how to process information, however, and as the pressure mounts for my child, so does the sturm und drang that accompany our study session-“I don’t get it!” “I don’t have to know that!” “Just tell me what the answer is!” As the infusion of data overwhelms him like a tidal wave, I lose all confidence that I can ever help him to understand what he needs to know.

    I sort of feel the Read More >

  • January 12, 2011

    By Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

    With Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit, Parashat Beshalah describes the Children of Israel crying out to God, “In great fear the Children of Israel cried out to the LORD.” (Exodus 14:10). No answer came from God, so they then turned to Moses, “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?’” (Exodus 14:11). They claimed that it would have been better if they stayed in Egypt, “For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). Moses responded and attempted to raise their spirits, “‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you Read More >

  • January 5, 2011

    By Rabbi Katy Allen

    All About the Heart

    I entered a patient room for a routine visit. Medical staff hovered nearby – they were having trouble with the EKG equipment, and yes, it was fine for me, the chaplain, to visit; they needed a few minutes. The patient, George (not his real name), told me his heartbeat was irregular, and they were trying to figure out why. I asked if he would like a prayer – yes. What would he like me to pray for? “I think you should pray for me.”

    The next day, George requested another visit. “You’ll never guess,” he said. The EKG had shown his heartbeat to be normal, it was still normal. The doctors were stumped. Suddenly, this visit was no longer routine. I left the room a bit overwhelmed and wondering about the Mystery of the universe. Read More >

  • December 29, 2010

    By Rabbi Raphael Goldstein

    A few months ago, we studied the three distinct Creation stories in the Bible  “ the story of the seven days of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, and the Noah story. Jewish tradition has always looked at these stories with the understanding that they are about theology, not science or history, but attempts to understand our relationship with G!d and the universe.

    This week, we read the Ten Plagues which G!d used to attain the liberation of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. But are they historically accurate; can they be scientifically proven? Is the Exodus from Egypt an allegory, just like the creation stories? Read More >

  • December 23, 2010

    By Hazzan Marcia Lane


    In 2007 the Jewish world lost a giant by the name of Alfred J. Kolatch. He was a rabbi, but didn’t always use his title. He was also the author of more than 25 books, including The Jewish Book of Why and The Jewish Child’s First Book of Why, but for many of us he is best known and loved for having written The Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names. It was first published as The Name Dictionary in 1967, revised in 1984, and is so universally respected that it has a place on virtually every Read More >

  • December 15, 2010

    By Simcha Raphael

    With Parashat Vayehi, the Book of Genesis reaches its grand finale. Jacob and his extended family are gathered in the land of Egypt, and first, the illustrious Patriarch himself dies; then, subsequently the complex, distinguished life of Joseph comes to an end.

    What do we learn from these concluding chapters of Genesis that can offer us a relevant model for dealing more openly with dying, death and grief in our families and communities? Read More >

  • December 10, 2010

    The Healing Power of Tears

    By Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

    Charles Dickens, in his comedy book Great Expectations wrote: “Heaven knows, we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” I take crying as a given fact in my life as I cry for joy, for pain and out of fear. I was taught that it is acceptable to cry if you are a little girl or even a mature woman. Unfortunately, some people, especially men, are often ashamed or afraid to cry because of the Western cultural norm which perceives crying as a sign of weakness. Boys are told, “Big boys don’t cry,” or, “Crying is for girls.” However, psychologists today reassure us that for both men and women, tears are a sign of courage, strength, and authenticity. Tears are the body’s release valve for stress sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration.

    It was no surprise, as I Read More >

  • November 22, 2010

    By Rabbi Bob Freedman

    At the end of this week’s parashah, Vayishlah, we learn that Jacob came back to his home, the land where his fathers had lived (Genesis 31:3). Specifically, he returned to Beit-El, the place where he first encountered God, the birthplace of his spiritual existence. What else is “home” but our spiritual center? We may bathe, sleep, and eat in a house to which we acquire the right of possession, but our home is the place from which flows the source of our connection and wholeness.

    Each of us finds our “home” in our own way. The three patriarchs, whose paths to being paradigmatic humans were very different, are our examples. Abraham found his home by going out from his origins to a brand new place. God gave Isaac the divine blessing when he re-opened the wells that his father had dug, metaphorically reclaiming wisdom and nurture that had Read More >

  • November 11, 2010

    By Sanford Olshansky 

    For over a year I’ve played “Stump the Rabbi” with the Hebrew School students at the temple where I work. On some of my classroom visits they have an opportunity to ask me the toughest Jewish questions they can think of. Students who ask me a question that I can’t answer get a prize. Most questions lead to meaningful discussions. One of the best this year was “Why doesn’t God show God’s self to us?” I gave the students a number of answers, suggesting that two questions behind this question might be “How do we know that God really exists?” and, if God exists, “Where can we find God?”

    The beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeitzei talks about how our ancestor Jacob, from whom we get the name Israel, found God. Many people today doubt Read More >

  • October 13, 2010

    By Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay

    On Wednesday, June 23rd, two days before my final service as rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth of Mount Sinai, I was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. As my primary care physician gave me the news, I held my telephone in my left hand and ran the fingers of my right hand fiercely through my hair and asked myself, “What do I do now?” I had a choice. I could collapse in fear and shake with anger and crawl into a dark hole. But I chose instead to answer myself with, “Go forward.” I could not return to the life I led before my doctor’s call; I could only go forward to the life that lay ahead. I knew I would not go forward alone. I would have my wife and daughters and their Read More >

  • September 28, 2010

    Seven  Principles of a Biblical  Environmental Ethic

    While many people delight in the high drama of the first stories of the Bible in this weeks’ parashah, we can also derive a profound and far-reaching  environmental ethic from these stories – and in particular from Genesis 1.  Outlined below are 7 principles of an environmental ethic found embedded in our first creation story.

    1. Integrity of all living things

    Everything that is created-light; the sky and water; earth, grasses and fruit trees; sun and stars; days and years; fish, sea monsters and birds; crawly creatures, wild animals and men and women-is called “good.” Each has integrity and value by virtue of its very existence, and each owes its existence to God. We human beings are not called to assign value to the creatures-this is God’s job, and herein lies the sacred Read More >

  • September 28, 2010

    The three pilgrimage festivals – Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot – are mentioned several times in the Torah – in Parshiyot Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, Emor, Pinhas, and Re’eh.  But it is only in two of these parshiyotEmor and Pinhas – that the Torah refers to what we now know as Sh’mini Atzeret.  In the former, we read only that “on the eighth day, you shall observe a sacred convocation and bring and offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering and you shall not work at your occupations” (Lev. 23:36). In the latter, we read only that “On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering [and] you shall not work at your occupations” (Deut. 29:35). This is followed by a description of the various offerings to be Read More >

  • September 14, 2010

    By Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

    Ashamnu, Bagadnu, gazalnu, dabarnu dophi  ¦..

    We beat our chests as we repeat this list of sins in our liturgy over and over again during Yom Kippur. It is an alef-bet listing of sins, said in the plural form, of things we might have done wrong. The rabbis felt that by reading the list collectively that no one would be embarrassed. By limited it to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alef-bet, the list would not go on and on. Still, there are years I want to rail against this. I am not that bad.

    Immediately after Kol Nidre, the liturgy says Vayomer Adonai Selahti Kidvarekha, And the Lord said, I have pardoned you according to your word  (Numbers 14:20). We are told that  œFor on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse yourself of all your sins: you shall be clean before Read More >

  • September 8, 2010

    By Rabbi Katy Allen

    Look in the mirror. You are unique, but your two sides are not so different from each other. Compare the patterns of the two sides of your face. Do you see the connection? Like every other human and myriads of other organisms you exhibit bilateral symmetry – your left and right sides are mirror images.

    Now look around. Compare the patterns in yourself to the patterns in a cat or a squirrel. Do you see the connections? Compare the connection between the patterns in yourself and in the squirrel to the connection between the patterns in a butterfly and in a bee. Do you see those connections? And now compare the connections among all those patterns to the connections in the patterns in a maple leaf and an oak leaf compared to those in a turtle and a Read More >

  • September 8, 2010

    By Michael Kasper

    How do we make sense of God as elegant, majestic, and breathtaking in one moment and vindictive, jealous, and consumed in the next?  Is there a force more cunning than God shows himself to be in this week’s parashah?

    There are only two places in all of Torah where Moses recites or sings extensive poetry – Shirat ha-Yam (Song of the Sea) and Ha’azinu (Give Ear) which is also known as Shirat Moshe (Song of Moses).  And since the Hebrew word for song or poem is the same, shir, it is as if a heavenly light is particularly shown to direct our attention and focus our minds.  We are left to imagine the voice of Moses, its timbre, timing, resonance, and feeling.  And we are left to speculate what state of emotion he could possibly have been in Read More >

  • September 1, 2010

    Nitzavim-VaYelekh, our double portion for this week, includes the 7th Haftarah in a series of Haftarot of Comfort and Consolation, read on the 7 Shabbatot following Tisha B Av. It is read on the Shabbat just preceding Rosh Hashanah as we are entering the period of intense personal introspection and accounting that is the essence of the Days of Awe.

    The Haftarah comes from the Book of Isaiah, and is generally assumed to have been written by a prophet who lived in exile in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  As with many of the prophetic writings, he writes about national issues, specifically God s redemption of the Israelites and their promised triumphant return to Zion after generations of exile.

    The prophet is comforting the exiles with the assurance that God has forgiven their sins (presented in earlier writings) and that they will be returning to Zion, Read More >

  • August 24, 2010

    By Steve Altarescu

    If Deuteronomic theology has not troubled you so far, Ki Tavo will now challenge you as it pushes the concept of reward and punishment to the limit. For the purpose of review here are some highlights of this theology from earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy.

     œGive heed to the laws ¦that you may live to enter and occupy the land.  (Deut: 4:1)

     œObey ¦that it may go well with you.  (4:25)

     œGod ¦keeps the covenant faithfully ¦of those who love God and keep God s commandments but instantly requites destruction on those who reject Him.  (7:9-10)

     œIf you do obey these rules ¦God will maintain ¦the covenant.  (7:12)

     œSee, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments  ¦and curses if you do not obey the commandments.  (11:26)

    In summary, the Israelites were told that if they followed the commandments they would be blessed and rewarded, and if they did not they would be Read More >

  • August 11, 2010
    This week we are privileged to read a parashah that covers a multitude of disparate subjects, including the laws of royalty and magicians, but is introduced by the subject relating to the parashah’s title: Shoftim – Judges. In the first verse, we are enjoined to appoint justices; and then in the next two verses we, and not the professional judges to be appointed, are given a set of commands of how we are to apply various concepts of justice. What is it we are prohibited from doing: take bribes, and show favoritism. As to the latter prohibition, Torah does not identify the likely recipients of favoritism. Nevertheless, the natural inclination is to conclude that it is the powerful and the rich who are to be its likely beneficiaries. But does this “natural” conclusion comport with our present society?

    This past television season marked the 20th, and last, Read More >

  • August 3, 2010

    This week’s Torah portion begins with these words, “See, this day I present before you a blessing and a curse. Blessing, that you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day and curse if you do not obey the commandments….” (Deut.11:26-28) Why does it begin with the word “see”? The sentence would stand on its own without it. What are we to “see”?

    Deuteronomy is in essence a review of where we have been. It asks us to examine our past actions as well as look ahead to the future. It requires us to have vision, the ability to “see” with all of our being in order to discern the blessings from the curses. As we get ready to enter the Land, God wants us to open our eyes and our hearts to the possibilities that lie ahead, learning from the mistakes that we Read More >

  • July 13, 2010

    By Simon Rosenbach

    My father left social work in early 1951 to sell life insurance in New Jersey for a wonderful (and now defunct) company called the New England Life Insurance Company. Eventually, my father was very successful, and the company permitted (or encouraged) him to start his own agency in Plainfield, New Jersey. Agencies were known by the name of the general agent in charge, so my father’s agency was the Max Rosenbach Agency.

    Alas, the New England had a mandatory, retirement policy, so my father had to surrender his agency when he turned 65. He worked hard, built this very successful business, and now had to relinquish it. But family dynasties in the insurance business were common, and surely one of Max’ three sons (sad to say, but daughters were not considered in those days) would want to inherit this multi-million Read More >

  • July 7, 2010

    By Rabbi Danny Horwitz

    My wife wasn’t planning to marry me. She was back from kibbutz, saving up money in order to make aliyah. Although I had spent a year studying in Israel, as a newly ordained rabbi I was not a good candidate for aliyah and we both knew it. I loved Israel, but I believed my future was in America. Something changed her mind, and twenty-eight years and four mostly grown children later, we are still together and back in the region where we both started out.

    Maybe I should have changed my plans. Maybe I should now. That’s the challenge of the Torah, at least if one takes it personally: …And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. (Num. 33:53) I do accept that it is the land of Read More >

  • June 30, 2010

    By Hayley Siegel

    This week’s parashah, Pinchas commences with a description of Pinchas’ reception of the unique brit shalom (a covenant of peace) and a priestly role from God. And yet, despite the fact that Pinchas receives these accolades and the entire parashah bears his name, we witness the momentous occasion when the tribe’s leadership is transferred instead from Moses to Joshua at the end of the parashah. If we want to discover why Joshua ended up succeeding Moses, we need to gain more insight into these men’s personalities and analyze their different styles of leadership.

    In order for us to understand Pinchas, we need to backtrack for a bit to last week’s parashah, Balak. As our text describes, God afflicts the Israelites with a plague after they perform idolatry and illicit sexual dalliances with the Moabite people at Shittim. Read More >

  • June 22, 2010

    By Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein

    In the middle of all the kvetching in the Book of the Wilderness, Bemidbar, we have a king who commissions a special curse for the people of Israel, and ends up paying to bless them. We have a talking donkey, working for a guy who is supposed to be a prophet, who has a vision of G!d which the prophet completely misses. The Torah portion Balak is comic relief when we need it most!

    Balak, the king of Moab, wanted desperately to curse the Israelites. So he called in his expert for blessings and curses, Balaam, and ordered him to come up with some good curses. Balaam refused, but agreed after making a deal with G!d that he would do exactly what G!d would tell him. Read More >

  • June 9, 2010

    By Rabbi H. Raphael Goldtsein

    I did not have a clue as to what the Torah portion was about on the day of my Bar Mitzvah. I was shocked when Rabbi Joachim Prinz told me about a guy named Korah who rebelled against Moses. I had been a particularly troublesome and rebellious kid in Hebrew School. I will always be very indebted to Rabbi Prinz for what he said to me.

    Rabbi Prinz told me that Korah was not evil. He rebelled for what he thought was right. He said that it was ok to rebel for what I believe in, to take risks, to stand up for my beliefs. But Korah failed in his rebellion. Korah embarrassed Moses and Aaron, bringing unrest among the people, achieving none of his goals. Korah rebelled without the savvy or understanding of how to negotiate Read More >

  • June 2, 2010

    By Cantor Alan J. Brava

    God through Moses promises the Israelites a land flowing in “milk and honey”; a land which they will inhabit as a free nation after years of being enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh. We have a slave nation wandering the desert with a leader who by the hand of God performs miracles at each and every obstacle the Israelites encounter. So what could go wrong?

    The leaders of each tribe went into Canaan and returned with fruits of the land and two different reports. Except for Caleb and Joshua, the others reported a land that was occupied by military giants and unconquerable; their recommendation was to return to Egypt or at best continue their journey and not enter Canaan at this time. “The land which we have journeyed into in order to scout out is a land Read More >

  • May 26, 2010

    Parashat Beha’alotekha
    By Barbara Rosenthal Birnbaum

    Until I learned the methods and strategies of feminist reading of the Bible, I would avoid rereading narratives such as the one about Miriam at the end of this week’s parashah -Beha’alotekha. This story (Numbers 12) is complex. It engenders many questions. It is fascinating.  But it always made me feel queasy, anxious, and disheartened. Both Miriam and Aaron question the prophetic authority of Moses. But only Miriam gets punished (with a skin disease). Why? Read More >

  • May 20, 2010

    By Rabbi/Cantor Bob Freedman

    Naso et rosh, lift up the heads of the Kohatites of the tribe of Levi.” When we are in a state of lowness, of “small mind,” we don’t see the full picture of the community in which we are imbedded. Boundaries, set in place by ourselves or by others, block our perception. Only when we achieve a “higher” consciousness, “large mind,” do we become aware of and participate in the relationships, the continual flow of energy, and the feed-back loops by which G!d continually creates and sustains the world of which we are a part.

    Imagine the Levite who has great difficulty seeing meaning in the task to which he was appointed when he became 30 years old. Let’s give him a name: Ovadiah, 6th beam carrier. The beams are heavy Read More >

  • May 6, 2010

    By Neal Spevack

    In the beginning of this week’s double parsha, Behar-Behukotai, the Jubilee year, Shenat HaYovel, is described. The Hebrew word yovel (from which “Jubilee” derives) means “ram’s horn,” since a ram’s horn was sounded near the year’s inception (Leviticus 25:9).

    Scripture states: “You shall count off seven weeks of years seven times seven years-so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years.” (Leviticus 25:8) What economic message did the Torah want to relate?

    It was a curious and unique market mechanism aimed at preventing the consolidation of land in any single group’s possession. In an agrarian society, the possession of land represented wealth and power not unlike today. The first priority was to maintain the land’s value. By counting every seven years and hence the shemitah, the Sabbatical year, the land was mandated to be left fallow Read More >

  • April 29, 2010

    A Dialogue on “HaMekallel”/ The One Who Curses God

    Leviticus 24:15 – “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying : Take the one the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” (NJPS).

    LIAT: I find it difficult to accept that God would be so vindictive and so concerned about what people on earth say about HaShem that God would order their death. I believe in a loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving God Who is above such seemingly petty, human-like behavior.

    DORIT: I don’t think this is about God being vindictive Read More >

  • April 22, 2010

    By Rabbi Michael G. Kohn

    One who reads or studies the Torah, and even one who listens carefully to the public Torah reading, is aware that many phrases or clauses appear with regularity. Therefore, it draws one’s attention when a phrase or clause does not read exactly as one had anticipated. The second of our double portion this week, Parashat Kedoshim begins with one such phrase. Thus, while one might be used to hearing (or reading): “vayedabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor dabeir el benei Yisrael . . .” And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites'”, Kedoshim begins: “vayedabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor dabeir el kol adat benei Yisrael . . .” “And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the entire community [or congregation] of Israelites'” What do the added words signify?

    Rashi, relying on the Sifra, says that the phrase “teaches that this parashah was said during an Read More >

  • April 14, 2010

    By Paul Hoffman

    To quote the anonymous sage, “whoever succeeds in saying something relevant about Tazria-Metzora brings redemption to the world.”

    The entire concept of tum’ah and toharah, of ‘impurity’ and ‘purity’ is strange and difficult to understand. Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus deal with an ailment known in ancient times as tzara’at which has been traditionally translated as ‘leprosy’ but in fact refers to some sort of highly contagious lesser skin ailment. It was apparently a well known disease which was considered dangerous to the general public. The horror with which it was regarded is suggested by the total isolation and ostracism imposed by the Torah on the victim: “the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days, on the seventh day… if the affection has remained unchanged in color…the priest shall isolate him for another seven days.’ (Lev. 13, 4-5).

    Beyond its identification and remedy, it Read More >

  • April 8, 2010

    By Steve Altarescu

    I once attended a meditation workshop at a Jewish retreat led by Rabbi Miles Krassen. He introduced a long meditation through which one could experience God’s presence as being within us and surrounding us and ultimately the realization that there is nothing other than God. Through our communal Hebrew chanting, interspersed with periods of silent meditation many of us were brought to an “enlightened” state. What I found most compelling was that I was overcome with a desire to reach out to others and give of myself and not to just sit and enjoy the “high”.

    In this week’s parashah, Sh’mini, we are told the baffling story of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who are killed when they offer ‘alien’ fire to God. We are not given a reason for their deaths, although some see clues within the text by which they might argue justify their deaths. Read More >

  • March 31, 2010

    Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah
    By Margaret Klein

    We’ve cleaned, cooked, celebrated. We’ve had seders that lasted until midnight. Now it is time to celebrate again. Shabbat in the middle of Passover. A double celebration. We don’t want to sound like the Israelites wandering around in the desert but we’re tired, so tired. Why did we do all this? Is this really what God requires or are we serving some other master? It is intriguing that the root for slave Ayin-Bet-Dalet is the same root for work, for the Temple service, for worship and for servant. Did the Israelites merely substitute one slavery for another’serving God? I don’t think so.

    Then this week’s Torah portion comes. Moses has just found the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf. He smashes the tablets. He is angry and tired. He wonders what all of this is for. God demands that Moses return up the mountain again. Moses Read More >

  • March 23, 2010

    By Jill Minkoff

    This year, Parashat Tzav coincides with Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath preceding Pesah. The Torah verses describe offerings and rituals that help the Jewish people maintain a close relationship with God. For Shabbat HaGadol, we read Malakhi 3:4-24 in place of the Haftarah associated with Parashat Tzav. Malakhi’s verses also speak to this relationship and are as poignant today as during his lifetime.

    Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, in commentary on The Twelve Prophets, describes the Jewish community of Malakhi’s era as negligent: the Temple service was in disrepute, Temple priests were careless with their duties, people were not tithing appropriately, there was general skepticism and indifference with regard to religion, morals were lax, and divorce and intermarriage were common (335). Gunther Plaut, in The Haftarah Commentary, likens this to contemporary times: we often doubt God’s presence and justice, there is instability within communities, and the rate of divorce and Read More >

  • March 18, 2010

    Parashat Vayikra
    By Susan Elkodsi

    Parashat Vayikra begins, “And the Lord called to Moses from the Tent of meeting,” and told him to speak to the people about presenting offerings to God. Given its explicit and detailed instructions for these sacrifices, the book of Vayikra can be considered a handbook for how to be a kohen. Keeping the sacrifices straight; what to bring and why, how to prepare it, and other instructions could make one’s head spin.

    A modern worshipper is likely to feel uncomfortable with the concept of animal sacrifice, and perhaps even more uncomfortable with the idea that a kind, merciful and gracious God would require such an act. At the point in history of the Exodus from Egypt, sacrifice was the form of worship for most, if not all, ancient Near East societies. While the concept of a spoken prayer directed at God is alluded to in Read More >

  • March 11, 2010

    By Julius Rabinowitz

    This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, begins with a familiar litany that I will paraphrase: six days you may work, but on the seventh day you are forbidden to do work.

    We’ve heard this many times already, and we’ll hear it many times again: it accompanied God’s giving of the manna; it resounded very loudly on Mount Sinai with booming thunder and other noises. And we’ve heard it twice again since. So, why does Torah repeat it once again in this week’s parashah? Are we so dense that we need this constant drilling? Or maybe its inclusion this week teaches us something else.

    This week, Torah juxtaposes the Shabbat prohibition with the command to build the mishkan, the Tabernacle – the portable shrine erected by the Israelites in the wilderness after they left Egypt and that served as God’s “home” on earth. The Rabbis of the Talmud rely on this Read More >

  • March 3, 2010

    By Eliana Falk

    In Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses ascends Har Sinai and comes face to face with God, so to speak. With each step, he ascends in body, mind and soul and he dwells in God’s presence.

    On Sinai, Moses knew the completeness, the unity, the wholeness the love of God – and the awe of God. And he was filled with holiness. On Sinai, he was deeply involved in the act of finding. He was finding a new relationship with God. And he was finding himself in the relationship. And, he was learning how to be a teacher and a leader, and to trust God absolutely.

    Meanwhile, the people were at the foot of Har Sinai, and even though they had already experienced God’s wonders and presence, they were lost. Their leader was not visible to them. Perhaps they let their fears overtake them, and so turned their Read More >

  • February 24, 2010

    By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

    The Gifts of Our Hearts

    “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him… let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:1-2, 8)

    Specific details for building the mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the desert follow. The sanctuary the Israelites are to make is physical, built from “gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood…” But it is built so that “I (G!d) may dwell” – v’shakhanti, which has the same Hebrew root as Shekhinah, the Divine Presence – “among them.”

    “That I may dwell among them.”

    Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught that it says “among them” and not “in its midst” to teach that every person must build the Read More >

  • February 10, 2010

    By Laurie Levy

    “It’s been a long time comin’, it’s going to be a long time gone. But you know, the darkest hour, is always just before the dawn.” David Crosby (1968)

    Last week’s parashah, Va’Era, leaves off right in the middle of the action where seven plagues have been visited on the Egyptians and Pharaoh’s heart is quite stiff. A teaching about why the parashah breaks here focuses on a common element of the remaining three plagues: darkness.

    In the’eighth plague, when the locusts swarmed, they covered the “surface [literally ‘eye’] of all the ground, and the ground became dark.” (Ex. 10:15) Not only was the land not visible to the Egyptians, but the land itself appears to be blinded from its cover of locusts. This of course foreshadows the ninth plague which limits the sight of the Egyptians even further, with darkness so thick that it could be touched. (Ex. Read More >

  • February 3, 2010

    By Hayley Mica Siegel

    To say that I come from a family of talkers is an understatement. At an early age, I was taught “It’s perfectly fine to interrupt someone else if you know his/her answer or what he/she is about to say” by my elders and witnessed irsthand that this statement was upheld to the highest degree! Dinnertime could nicely be described as a six-ring circus (there were five members of my family and a bearded collie named Bailey). There was an “unspoken” challenge laid in front of every member of my household: to get as many words or opinions interjected into the dinner conversation as possible. And with three boisterous children, two engaged parents, and a street savvy dog, it’s fair to say that people in the lobby of my building could have easily heard every idea, bark, or interjection. Even at family functions (or other people’s family functions!), Read More >

  • January 26, 2010

    By Joan Lenowitz

    “BaMayim Ro’im,” In the Water They See

    It is the rainy season in Israel right now and the words of acknowledgement that we insert into the Amidah for God’s benevolence in bestowing life-preserving rains upon us during this season seem not to have not gone unheeded. It has been raining without pause for nearly a week here in Israel.

    In the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) there is a story about Honi hame’agel, Honi the circle-maker; God seems to be especially receptive to Honi’s prayers for rain. So when the Rabbis are distressed about the lack of rain they come to Honi and ask him to implore God for rain. When his initial prayer does not succeed, Honi decides to play “hard ball” with God. He draws a circle around himself and tells the Holy One that he will not remove himself from within this circle until God sends rain. God Read More >

  • January 13, 2010

    By Sanford Olshansky

    This parashah forces us to ask ourselves whether we believe in a God who acts in history – a God who even if not very hands-on today, must have been very hands-on at one time. The Genesis tales about the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs could be taken as allegories. Even the Exodus stories about Moses’ birth and rescue and God’s first revelation to Moses at the burning bush are taken by many people as allegories.

    In this week’s parashah, Va-era, God responds to Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go by sending a series of plagues. We all know the sequence from reciting it at the Passover Seder: blood, frogs, vermin, insects, pestilence, boils and hail. (The locusts, darkness and slaying of the firstborn Egyptians come next week in Parashat Bo.) After each plague, Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he refuses to let the Israelites go. The plagues Read More >

  • January 6, 2010

    By Rabbi Allen Darnov

    “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk” (Exod 2:11). This verse has generally been understood to denote that Moses, aware of his Hebrew identity, sympathetically goes out to investigate the suffering of his oppressed kinsmen in Egypt.

    When might Moses have learned that he was a Hebrew? Moshe Greenberg believes that Moses remained at home with his mother beyond the period of weaning (cf. Gen 21:8), and that he was therefore old enough to acquire a Hebrew identity from his family (Understanding Exodus, p. 42). Nachmanides explains that Pharaoh’s court “told him he was Jewish (Yehudi) and he therefore desired to see them because they were his kinsmen” (Nachmanides to Exod 2:11).

    However, it is also possible to read Exod 2:11 otherwise, that Moses does not have knowledge of his Hebrew roots, and so he does not know the Hebrew slaves are his Read More >

  • December 29, 2009

    By Rabbi Michael G. Kohn

    As we look at this parashah, I would like us to think about the message the Torah is giving us as parents. I have always had a difficult time with this parashah, first, because it focuses on the death of the last of our patriarchs. The description of Jacob’s “family” – in reality, his sons – gathered at his bedside is one familiar to most, if not all of us. At the death of my father of blessed memory almost 17 years ago, the scene played out almost as described in the Torah. First, my father spoke with two of his grandsons, as did Jacob, before speaking with his children. Then, he spoke with each of his children individually, though many of us were in the room together with him.

    Which brings me to my second difficulty with this parashah. I am a parent and a grandparent Read More >

  • December 29, 2009

    By Rabbi Michael G. Kohn

    As we look at this parashah, I would like us to think about the message the Torah is giving us as parents. I have always had a difficult time with this parashah, first, because it focuses on the death of the last of our patriarchs. The description of Jacob’s “family” – in reality, his sons – gathered at his bedside is one familiar to most, if not all of us. At the death of my father of blessed memory almost 17 years ago, the scene played out almost as described in the Torah. First, my father spoke with two of his grandsons, as did Jacob, before speaking with his children. Then, he spoke with each of his children individually, though many of us were in the room together with him.

    Which brings me to my second difficulty with this parashah. I am a parent and a grandparent Read More >

  • December 11, 2009

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    The test of a person’s
    character comes when we are faced with a circumstance to which we must clearly
    reply. While we understand that not everything can be seen or judged so
    clearly, that often there are many connected factors to consider, yet in the
    end the choice we ultimately make will reflect our values.

     

    On this Shabbat, our Torah
    portion brings us the contrasting positions of Judah and Joseph each who
    respond to a sexual challenge in opposite ways. On the one hand there is Judah,
    who, upon seeing the ‘harlot’ (who Read More >

  • December 2, 2009

    Wrestling
    By Jill Minkoff

    The day after Thanksgiving, my daughter and I were deciding what to do with leftovers. While in her kitchen, I shared with her my assignment to write a D’var Torah about Parashat Vayishlah.

    “Wow!” she said, “I was just studying that with a student I am tutoring. The student really connected with the part about Jacob wrestling the angel and then realizing it was God [or, as NJPS translates Elohim, ‘beings divine’]. Afterward, we read the story of Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah. She said that exploring both of these stories helped her to understand what her father has been trying to teach her about choosing one’s battles – One needs to be selective.”

    “Hmmm…” I found myself thinking, “What does being selective in picking battles have to do with Jacob’s wrestling match? Did he have a choice? This is not where Read More >

  • November 17, 2009

    ‘A New Look at Esav’
    (Page references to Chumash Etz Chaim)
    Rabbi David Mark

    In this parashah, we meet Esav and Jacob for the first time’they are twins, but unalike. Esav is ‘red, like a hairy mantle’ (Gen 25:25, p.147), while Jacob is a ‘smooth man.’ Esav becomes ‘a skillful hunter,’ while Jacob is ‘a tent-dweller.’ (Gen 25:27)

    Most rabbinic commentary on Esav has been prejudiced against him, considering him a foolish country bumpkin or an idolatrous villain. He is a fool because he sold his birthright to clever Jacob for a bowl of red-bean chili, thereby losing the better blessing. Other rabbis consider him dangerous because he is a hunter, unlike civilized Jacob, a shepherd. Finally, he is an idolater, because he marries two pagan Hittite women, who become ‘a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah.’ (Gen 26:35) They consider even his red hair to be evil(!), because, during the chili Read More >

  • November 12, 2009

    By Rabbi Henry Glazer

    Last Sunday I turned seventy. Since then I have found myself contemplating my mortality and vulnerability. I have experienced an array of feelings touching on sadness, fear and uncertainty. There was more in my life that was behind rather than ahead of me; my cup was no longer full, but mostly empty.

    This is a depressing thought, one that confronts us with a spiritual challenge not only when we age, but whenever we feel that life’s fullness is somehow out of reach for us, whether as a result of loss, illness, grief or some other personal experience of failure. How do we cope? How do we go ahead with our lives in a joyful and meaningful way?

    One answer is found, I believe, in a striking passage of Hayyei Sarah. Sarah has died, Abraham has acquired a burial place for her, and we are told: “Abraham was Read More >

  • November 5, 2009

    Every year we read the same parashiyot, in the same order, always finding something new. This year, my discovery came last Rosh HaShanah, when I reviewed this week’s parashah, Vayera.
     
    We all know Parashat Vayera. Angels visit Abraham, Abraham argues with God, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters have interesting, incestuous relationships, Sarah has her long-awaited son, Sarah expels Hagar and Ishmael from the camp, and, well, let’s stop there.
     
    As we all know, there are no vowels in the Torah. For the pronunciation of the words, we depend on the Masoretes, those people who about 1,000 years ago punctuated the Torah, set it to music, and told us how the words should be pronounced. Because there are no vowels in the Torah, and because Hebrew is a phonetic language, any cluster of consonants can be pronounced in many ways, some of which will make sense and some of Read More >

  • November 5, 2009

    Every year we read the same parashiyot, in the same order, always finding something new. This year, my discovery came last Rosh HaShanah, when I reviewed this week’s parashah, Vayera.
     
    We all know Parashat Vayera. Angels visit Abraham, Abraham argues with God, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters have interesting, incestuous relationships, Sarah has her long-awaited son, Sarah expels Hagar and Ishmael from the camp, and, well, let’s stop there.
     
    As we all know, there are no vowels in the Torah. For the pronunciation of the words, we depend on the Masoretes, those people who about 1,000 years ago punctuated the Torah, set it to music, and told us how the words should be pronounced. Because there are no vowels in the Torah, and because Hebrew is a phonetic language, any cluster of consonants can be pronounced in many ways, some of which will make sense and some of Read More >

  • October 29, 2009

    At a recent teacher enhancement seminar at the Seattle Jewish Federation, the host asked us to consider this text from Parashat Lekh L’kha (Gen. 12:1-3):

    Vayomer Hashem el Avram, lekh l’kha mei’artzekha umimolad’t’kha umibeit avikha el Ha’Aretz asher ar’eka. V’e’es’kha l’goi gadol va’avarekh’kha v’agad’lah sh’mekha, veh’yei b’rakhah. Va’avar’kha m’varakhekha um’kalelkha a’or, v’nivr’khu v’kha kol mish’p’hot ha’adamah.

    Hashem said to Avram, go for yourself, from your land, and your birthplace, and your father’s house; to the Land which I will show you. I will make of you a great people, I will bless you and make your name great; and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse the one who curses you; and all the families of the land will bless themselves through you.

    The host asked us to work with hevrutah (study partners) and explore this Read More >

  • October 20, 2009

    Parashat Noah
    By Ellen Bernstein

    This coming Shabbat, October 24, hundreds of thousands of people in 158 countries around the globe will be participating in the International Day of Climate Action. They will try to convince world leaders to craft policies to help bring atmospheric concentrations of CO2 down to 350 parts per million-the figure that scientists say is the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere, the amount that will enable life to continue to thrive on the planet.

    While the folks at 350.org, the organizers for the event, did not have a Jewish calendar in front of them when they determined the date for what will be the largest ecological event in the world’s history, it is an uncanny coincidence that they chose the moment that we Jews read in our annual Torah cycle, Parashat Noah. The Noahstory, more than any other in the Torah, proclaims a profound Read More >

  • October 13, 2009

    By Miriam Herscher

    One Jewish year and Torah reading cycle closes and one Jewish year and Torah cycle begins…

    In synagogues this coming Shabbat we read together the very first parashah of the very first book of our beloved Torah: our guide and charter for our human mission in the Universe.

    The chapter opens with the familiar and commanding words: Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” “Time has not diminished the power or the majesty of the familiar biblical account of the creation of the world, nor has familiarity dulled its impact.” (Etz Hayim) These words are awesome, magical, riveting.

    And so begins the reading…

    My favorite verses in this parashah are 1:3-4: “Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness” each one to reign Read More >

  • October 7, 2009

    A Meaning in the 21st Century
    By Julius Rabinowitz

    This coming Shabbat we celebrate the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a one day holiday that seems to be lacking an identity to most American Jews. Biblically, a holiday in which we are to hold a “solemn gathering”, accompanied by the annual celebration of the “prayer for rain”-albeit intended for the desert land of Israel and not for the temperate climes and year-round rainfall experienced in the Northern Hemisphere where most Diaspora Jews live. And its main “drawing” power seems to be the inclusion of a Yizkor service, less than two weeks after we gathered in synagogue for the very same commemoration. Indeed, when one looks at the Biblical origins and rabbinic modifications of the holiday, its identity appears to be bound up in the previous Sukkot holiday and its seven day joyous observance, and a respite before yet another joyous celebration the next Read More >

  • September 22, 2009

    Parashat Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuva
    Susan Elkodsi

    Shabbat Shuva carries with it an air of redemption, for ourselves as individuals, and for the Jewish people as a whole. Parashat Ha’azinu, which we read on Shabbat Shuva this year, carries that message from God, through Moses, to the Israelites perched on the banks of the Jordan ready to cross into the Promised Land. Ha’azinu is Moses’ final discourse, his instructions to the people, but it isn’t a “rah rah go get ’em” commencement type of speech. Yes, it’s a message of hope for the future, but before we get there, we have to listen to a lot of scolding and admonition regarding the sins of the previous generations.

    This could explain why the parashah begins, Ha’azinu hashamayim v’adabeira, v’tishma ha-aretz imrei-fi. “Give ear, heavens, and I will speak, the earth will hear my speech.” (Deut. 32:1) If this is a message for the people, Read More >

  • September 15, 2009

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    “Zokhreinu Lehayyim Melekh Hafetz Behayyim-Remember us that we may live, O Ruler Who delights in Life – V’Khotveynu B’Sefer Hahayyim Lema’ankha Elohim HayimInscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your Sake, O Living God.”

    These are the words of a special insertion in the High Holy Day Amidah. It probably dates from the post-Talmudic period and seems to have become part of our liturgy only after much debate. And yet there was such affinity for
    these verses, especially during times when our lives were very threatened that this plea for life was sustained.

    There was also another thread that was being preserved here, which refers to asking God to inscribe us for life in God’s Book of Life. The very first reference in the Torah to any such book comes in Exodus 32:32 when Moses asks God to Read More >

  • September 8, 2009

    By Sanford Olshansky

    When I was 22 years old, I had stopped practicing Judaism. My attendance at Shabbat services had dwindled to zero. Not so unusual – lots of Jews attend synagogue only on the High Holidays plus an occasional bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. But that year, I didn’t even attend High Holiday services – I worked – and it didn’t feel right.

    Later that year I read The Source, by James Michener. As I became engrossed in it, I realized that it was speaking to me about a miracle – the miracle of Jewish survival. It reminded me that for over 3,000 years our continuous chain of tradition and belief has survived conquest, exile and dispersion, the rise and fall of empires and persecution which is unparalleled
    in human history. It helped me to realize that I’m an heir to a unique spiritual heritage. If I hadn’t Read More >

  • August 18, 2009

    By Simon Rosenbach

    If you are of a certain age, you remember Superman, the television show with George Reeves, Noel Neill, Jack Larson, and, among others, Phillips Tead as the delightful Professor Pepperwinkle . . . but I digress. Of course you remember the end of the introduction: “fighting a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Well, if you are of a certain age, you had fun with that ending. It became, “fighting a never ending battle for truth, justice, and something completely different, the American way.” After all, if truth and justice are not the American way, then what is?

    This week’s parashah poses a similar puzzle. Moses directs the people to appoint judges who will judge impartially, who will not accept bribes that blind their eyes. Then, as though he were mentioning something completely different, Moses utters those famous words, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice you Read More >

  • August 4, 2009

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut

    There is a juxtaposition of two verses in this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, which relate very well to a modern-day phenomenon. Moses, just prior to his death, exhorts the People of Israel to stop blocking themselves from belief in and loyalty to God (Deuteronomy 10:16):

    Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.

    Three verses later, Moses emphasizes that we are to emulate the greatness of God through our actions, specifically (Deuteronomy 10:19):

    You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

    The Hebrew word for “stranger” is “ger” which has also been used to mean “convert.”

    In other words, we are being asked to look at our own practices and open ourselves us up to developing a deep and abiding relationship with our Creator, the One Who is concerned about all those created. Read More >

  • July 30, 2009

    Comfort, Oh Comfort!
    By Hazzan Marcia Lane

    I just got back from Israel. A friend, who has never been there, asked me, “Were you okay? Did you feel comfortable everywhere?” The nature of the question is similar to one that was posed to me right here in my home-town of Long Branch, NJ: “I parked my car in that block. Am I going to feel comfortable going back after dark?” The implication, of course, is that there is danger in certain places or in certain times of day. We should be on our guard in these places or at these times. We should find no comfort there.

    Leaving aside the widespread – and unfounded – feeling among some people that the whole of Israel (or parts of Long Branch!) is a danger zone, there are certainly times and places that fill us with feelings
    of discomfort. This period of economic uncertainty is Read More >

  • July 23, 2009

    Shabbat Hazon – Sabbath of Vision
    By Jill Minkoff

    Vision – This week’s Sabbath is Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision. We read Isaiah 1:1-27. The selection of this Haftarah sets the stage for our observance and memories of Tisha B’Av (rather than for its connection to the Parashat HaShavuah). It begins with the word: Hazon, Vision. It includes three visions of inequities and sin that are the basis for God’s request that we come and mediate an understanding in order to be saved through judgment.

    Vision – The Parashat HaShavuah is Devarim 1:1-3:22. Moses commences his final words to the community that has traveled from Egypt toward Israel. A friend recently shared with me how he was struck by the vision of the numerous places Moses recalls and names. They are the multitude of locations along the path Read More >

  • July 7, 2009

    By Julius Rabinowitz

    Pinhas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron, got up and took a spear in his hand and ran it through Zimri, the son of a chieftain from the tribe of Simon, and Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of the Midianites. What was their heinous crime that deserved such punishment: a public sexual act of undefined nature?

    This week’s Torah portion is called “Pinhas” and you would be excused if you couldn’t find this gory depiction in the reading. Because it was in last week’s reading. This week we only read about God’s rewarding Pinhas with the “covenant of peace” for eternity – the only person to receive this reward from God. But if you didn’t read last week’s Torah portion you wouldn’t have a clue as to what he did to deserve the unique reward as the only indication we Read More >

  • June 24, 2009

    By Boaz Marmon

    “Can you hear them? They talk about
    us, telling lies – well, that’s no surprise.”

    This is the first verse, not of
    Parashat Korah
    , but of the Go-Go’s’ 1982 hit “Our lips are
    sealed” (you may be familiar with a recent cover by Hilary and Haylie
    Duff). I doubt that Belinda and the girls had Moshe Rabbeinu
    – Moses Our Teacher – and Aharon Ha-Kohen – Aaron the Priest
    – in mind when they wrote the song, but not only do I think Moshe
    would sympathize with the sentiments of the song, he also seems to have
    internalized the strategy advocated by the Go-Go’s in response: “There’s
    a weapon / which we must use / in our defense: / silent lips!”

    Our Sages anachronistically applied
    the title, “Rabbenu – Our Rabbi” to Moses. Those of us
    serving in Read More >

  • June 17, 2009

    Perception vs. Reality
    By Rabbi Sharon Ballan

    One of my favorite television shows when I was
    growing up was “All in the Family.” I distinctly remember sneaking out of bed
    and watching secretly from the top of the stairway, because it was shown past
    my bedtime. Later, my parents let me watch with them and it became a weekly
    family ritual. One episode in particular stands out in my mind. Edith, Archie,
    Mike, and Gloria are at a restaurant, discussing the events of the day. Their
    refrigerator had broken, and a repairman and his helper (who happened to be
    black) had come to repair it. Mike and Archie had radically different memories
    of what happened. Archie insisted the young black man, large and menacing,
    threatened him with a knife. Mike, on the other hand described the man as
    gentle and polite, and maintained that there was no knife at all. Finally Edith
    tells the real story: the Read More >

  • June 9, 2009

    Be Careful What You Ask For
    By Gary A. Kabler

    In this week’s portion the people complain to Moses that the manna
    that G-d has provided so abundantly for them to eat no longer satisfies them. Like
    petulant children, the people whine, “If we only had meat to eat! We remember
    the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons,
    the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is
    nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
    (Num. 11:1-6)

    Obviously the people have forgotten that to get the foods that they
    were whining and complaining about they had to do back-breaking slave labor in Egypt, but
    apparently that was seen as a triviality when compared to actually having the
    food. Apparently it was far easier to recall the meager struggle of walking
    freely towards a place that Moses has assured the people was, and would
    eventually be, Read More >

  • June 2, 2009

    By Molly Karp

    Parashat
    Naso
    begins with the continuation of the counting of the Gershonites and the
    Merarites, the Levites who are responsible for transporting the hangings, poles,
    planks and hardware of the Tent of Meeting. Just as the Tabernacle would not be
    complete without all of its parts, so too, the Levitical family would not be
    complete without all of its members.

    Envisioning
    the wilderness camp as a nest of concentric circles: the Torah places the space
    for holiness, God’s presence, at the center, surrounded by the precincts of the
    Mishkan, surrounded by the Levites, who are surrounded by the Israelites.

    The parashah

    continues with a number of apparently unrelated cases. We learn that anyone who
    has become tamei, (unfit to approach the Holy space) is to be removed
    from the camp, so as not to render the entire camp tamei
    – unfit for God’s presence within it. We learn Read More >

  • May 27, 2009

    Standing at Sinai
    By Rabbi Michael G. Kohn

    For me, the festival of Shavuot is a riddle shrouded in mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Although it is fixed in our modern calendars as the sixth day of Sivan, no such date appears anywhere in the Torah. In parashat Pinhas, where the additional sacrifices for each of the special days – Shabbat, the Yamin Nora’im (Days of Awe) and the Shalosh Regalim (Three Pilgrimage Festivals) – are specified (Num. 28-29), it is the only one of the holidays and festivals which does not begin with (or even mention) the date of its observance.

    In parashat Emor, where each of the special days of the calendar is described (Lev. 23), there is no similar description for Shavuot as we have come to know it. On Read More >

  • May 21, 2009


    By Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    Chapter
    two of B ‘midbar describes the arrangement and organization of the Israelite
    camp in the wilderness. The mishkan, God’s tabernacle, is to reside in the
    center of the camp. It is surrounded by the tribe of Levites to guard and
    protect it. In the east, with the rising sun, the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar
    and Zevulun are to encamp. To the south, in full sun and heat, will settle the
    tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Gad. To the west in the setting sun, the tribes of
    Efraim, Menasheh and Binyamin reside. And to the north, in a darker place, the
    tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali shall camp. The Torah speaks to us here in the
    language of geography and orientation. Like a blossoming flower or the image of
    the planets revolving around the sun, the Israelite camp expresses a truth in
    spatial form. It is perhaps a model of community that offers lessons Read More >

  • May 21, 2009


    By Kaya Stern-Kaufman

    Chapter
    two of B ‘midbar describes the arrangement and organization of the Israelite
    camp in the wilderness. The mishkan, God’s tabernacle, is to reside in the
    center of the camp. It is surrounded by the tribe of Levites to guard and
    protect it. In the east, with the rising sun, the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar
    and Zevulun are to encamp. To the south, in full sun and heat, will settle the
    tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Gad. To the west in the setting sun, the tribes of
    Efraim, Menasheh and Binyamin reside. And to the north, in a darker place, the
    tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali shall camp. The Torah speaks to us here in the
    language of geography and orientation. Like a blossoming flower or the image of
    the planets revolving around the sun, the Israelite camp expresses a truth in
    spatial form. It is perhaps a model of community that offers lessons Read More >

  • May 13, 2009

    By Simon Rosenbach

    This week we sort of read, as we sort of read every year, the first version of the Tokhehah, a list of threats that God has Moses deliver to the children of Israel. These threats are so dire (“you will eat the flesh of your children” – Lev. 26:29) that they are read as softly and fast as possible, so that t

    After telling us that if we heed the commandments, we’ll have an undefeated season, the Torah warns us that if we violate the commandments, we won’t win a game, we won’t even take the field, we won’t even be able to find the city where the stadium is located, and we’ll probably get torn to shreds by wild beasts as we wander aimlessly.

    Now, does anybody actually believe today that your crops won’t grow if you write on Shabbat? That you’ll eat your children if you drive to Read More >

  • May 13, 2009

    By Simon Rosenbach

    This week we sort of read, as we sort of read every year, the first version of the Tokhehah, a list of threats that God has Moses deliver to the children of Israel. These threats are so dire (“you will eat the flesh of your children” – Lev. 26:29) that they are read as softly and fast as possible, so that t

    After telling us that if we heed the commandments, we’ll have an undefeated season, the Torah warns us that if we violate the commandments, we won’t win a game, we won’t even take the field, we won’t even be able to find the city where the stadium is located, and we’ll probably get torn to shreds by wild beasts as we wander aimlessly.

    Now, does anybody actually believe today that your crops won’t grow if you write on Shabbat? That you’ll eat your children if you drive to Read More >

  • May 6, 2009

    By Sanford Olshansky

    In the summer of 1970, when I was 20 years old, I rear-ended another car on one of the freeways in Detroit, where I grew up. There were no injuries and the police officer who came to the scene said there was no need for an accident report. A few weeks later my father, who owned the car, was sued for much more than the amount of his insurance coverage by the driver of the car that I hit, who now claimed to have sustained serious injuries. I was required to give a deposition at the office of the other driver’s lawyer.

    The driver of the other car was a middle-aged Jewish man and the partners of his law firm had obviously Jewish last names. I will never forget the huge marble fa’ade of the law office, with the partners’ names carved in letters filled with gold paint. Read More >

  • May 6, 2009

    By Margaret Frisch Klein

    “What, you didn’t call, you didn’t write.” We’ve all heard the stereotypical Jewish mother jokes. There is some truth in them. Mothers like to be called. I know. I am one. This year as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I wish that I still had a mother to call. You may not think that Mother’s Day is a Jewish holiday. However, the principles come directly from our Jewish tradition – right from this week’s Torah portion.

    This week’s parashah tells us how the priests should behave, about the holiness of Shabbat and the holidays, and about just punishments. What is the connection between these topics? All of them are about creating kedushah, a life of holiness, and showing kavod, honor.

    We are not like the ancient Israelites. We no longer have a priestly class or the Temple in which to sacrifice. Since the destruction of the Holy Temple Read More >

  • April 23, 2009


    By Rabbi David Greenstein

    This
    Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new month. This is a time
    which the overwhelmingly male-centered tradition assigned for celebration of
    the place of Jewish women in the community. In the old days women would observe
    Rosh Hodesh as a quasi-festival, refraining from unnecessary work and
    household chores. In modern times the feminist renewal of Judaism has enhanced
    this traditional association of Rosh Hodesh and feminism in many
    creative and meaningful ways.

    It is in
    this context that we read the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Tazri`a-M’tzora.
    While the bulk of this double portion deals with the phenomenon of tzara`at,
    a surface affliction, commonly but incorrectly translated as leprosy, the start
    of the reading deals with childbirth and its purity and ritual effects on the
    mother.

    The Torah
    (Lev. 12) states that if Read More >

  • March 25, 2009

    Towards a MacroCosmic View of Leviticus
    By Molly Karp

    “God called to Moshe and spoke to
    him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel
    and say to them “When a person from among them would bring near (
    yakriv) an
    offering (
    korban) to Adonoi from the cattle, from the herd and from the flocks you
    shall bring near (
    takrivu) your offering. (korbanchem) ” Leviticus 1:1-2

    These
    opening verses of Vayikra contain the Hebrew root k-r-v four times, referring to both the person who approaches God,
    and the offering that s/he brings near to God in order to approach the Holy Presence. What we generally translate as “sacrifice” is
    literally the thing that we bring near to God in order to come near to God’s
    presence.

    Vayikra is the central book of the Torah. It is a catalogue Read More >

  • March 17, 2009

    By Rabbi Robert Waxman

    The additional Torah reading for this Shabbat of Ha-Hodesh – “This month…” (Ex. 12:1-20), falls on Rosh Hodesh Nisan or the Shabbat preceding. The Shabbat has awesome responsibilities. It announces the new moon and the new month of Nisan which is the first of the months. Ha-Hodesh tells us to get ready for Passover, which falls in the middle of Nisan. Spring is here. Now is the time to get ready to plant the spring crops.

    This can be a spiritual time for us. Spring is associated with new buds on trees, new plants, full of green, popping up and seeking the warmth of the rays of sunlight after resting during the winter months. As we walk around slowly, we have the opportunity to marvel how the organisms of the earth know that it is time for re-birth. Last month, on February 12, we marked the 200th birthday Read More >

  • January 20, 2009

    By Paul Hoffman

    This week has been one of history-in-the-making as the first man of color was the people’s overwhelming favorite to step into the White House and assume the Presidency of the USA. As with every new administration, it is only normal for Americans to hope that a significant level of change for the better will ensue, and today is certainly no different. Currently our country is divided on two levels as we are not only at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our economy is in such dire straits that it has been likened to that of the Great Depression. I can’t imagine what pressure Barack Obama is experiencing. So far he has displayed intelligence and articulation and has done a masterful job in choosing a diverse and qualified cabinet. However, if I were he, I’d also be searching for a mentor, one who has experience in leading a Read More >

  • January 6, 2009

    By Molly Karp

    Our parashah this week, Vayehi, records the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph, and allows us to see that both of these two well-flawed individuals seem to grow significantly in character. They are able to look back at their mistakes and do some things differently at the end.

    Adopting Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasheh as his own, Jacob reverses their birth order while blessing them. Although it is not explicitly clear whether Isaac knew he was blessing Jacob and not Esau with the blessing of the first-born, the text makes it clear that it was God’s will for the younger to receive the blessing of the elder; indeed, in Toldot we read God’s words to Rebecca:

    Two nations are in your womb,
    Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
    One people shall be mightier than the other,
    Read More >

  • December 31, 2008

    By Mark H. Getman

    Forgiveness comes in many shades and gradations. In Vayigash we read of Joseph’s forgiveness towards his brothers. As we see in Genesis 45:5 “And now, do not be troubled, nor let it be disturbing in your eyes that you have sold me into this place, for God sent me before you in order to preserve life.” This is a clear indication that Joseph did not harbor any bad feelings towards his brothers for their actions. As we approach the Common New Year many of us recall actions that fell upon us by others over the past year. When those actions occurred to us, did we feel vengeful? When the wrong doers admitted their wrongdoing and took responsibility for what they have done, did we forgive them? Do we feel that it is better or more hurtful to the person we wronged to admit our wrongdoing?

    Joseph doesn’t show Read More >

  • December 27, 2008

    By Hayley Siegel

    At face value, our currency is just a simple piece of paper. That currency only becomes activated when we invest it with our trust in each other and our institutions, and receive that trust in return from others. However, if we look into our world today, there is a lack of trust on the part of investors and lenders and for good reason. The recent Bernard Madoff financial scandal has been a tragic illustration of trust’s betrayal. In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we witness our ancient ancestors grapple with similar challenges during times of economic hardship. Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers, who come to him for help during the famine, teaches us important lessons about how it is necessary to rebuild trust and faith in each other before we may move forward to overcome pressing challenges and survive great hardships.

    Our narrative takes place in Egypt in a Read More >

  • December 20, 2008

    Joan Lenowitz

    Just when our own breathing quickens, as Joseph, Jacob’s favorite, is thrown into the pit and then sold off by his treacherous brothers in one of the most suspenseful narratives in the Torah, there comes a pregnant pause. The scene recedes from view, with Joseph on his way to his daring adventures in Egypt, and our attention turns to a vignette of Judah and Tamar, seemingly only tangentially related to the main narrative.

    Judah has taken himself a wife from among the Canaanites; she bears him three sons but then dies. Judah chooses Tamar as a wife for the first son Er, but God is displeased with him and shortens his life. Tamar is then given, as a levirate wife, to the second son, Onan with the expectation that he will fulfill his obligation to procreate with Tamar on behalf of his deceased brother. God is displeased with the second Read More >

  • December 3, 2008

    Parashat Vayetze begins and ends with Yaakov encountering angels; first in a dream, and then, presumably, in a vision or daydream of some sort.

    A commentary in the Etz Chaim Chumash suggests that these encounters serve as bookends, or parentheses, bracketing Yaakov’s 20 years in Laban’s home. I will return to that thought.

    But we also know that angels appear for a reason. Sometimes it’s to bring good news, such as telling Sarah she will have a child. But, sometimes, the news isn’t so good, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah.

    This second possibility gives a 1968 movie its title – “Where Angels go, Trouble Follows.” In that movie, Rosalind Russell plays an old-fashioned Mother Superior who takes the young nuns and girls of her school on a cross-country trip. It’s a comedy of errors as they have multiple bus mishaps, are forced to stay at a Read More >

  • November 12, 2008

    By Molly Karp

    Hayyei Sarah, while not the only parashah named for a person, is the only one named for a woman. It is not surprising that it is named for Sarah; what is surprising, however, is that this parashah seems not to be about Sarah Imeinu – Sarah Our Mother – at all! What really is going on here?

    The first chapter of the parashah is about Abraham’s purchasing a burial cave for Sarah from Ephron the Hittite. Sarah is not an active character in this chapter; we know nothing about her death save that it is recorded directly following Abraham’s returning home alone from the near-sacrifice of Isaac, but that is the topic of another d’var Torah. The second chapter of the parashah, Chapter 24 is the longest chapter in B’reshit, and one of the central ones as well. Its placement tells us that it is a most important Read More >

  • November 12, 2008

    By Laurie Levy

    The verb reish-aleph-hey occurs three times in the first two verses of this week’s parashah. I think this points to a lesson about what it means to see – really see.

    Last week we ended with Abraham circumcising himself and his household and so this week, when we read that Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent, we infer that he is recuperating from his recent surgery. Sitting there midday, God appears to him: “He lifted his eyes and, behold, he saw three men standing near him.” (Gen. 18:2) How is it that these strangers (who we later come to realize are angels of God)appear to him so suddenly in the middle of the desert?

    The S’fat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic master, answers this question with a verse from Job, who, despite all the suffering he was experiencing in his body and on his skin, Read More >

  • November 6, 2008

    By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

    Yom Kippur means “the Day of Atonement,” but we can also think of this day as “the Day of Truth-Telling.” Our major spiritual task in life is to access our personal truths and connect them to universal truths, and then to have the courage to speak these truths with enough faith that we speak them not with defiance or defensiveness, but with profound humility. Yom Kippur can help us on this journey.

    The Torah portion for Yom Kippur contains words such as avonot, pesha’im, chata’ot, tum’ot – sins, transgressions, iniquities, uncleanness. These words speak of our fear, anger, guilt, or other spiritual blocks to a freer sense of being and a better relationship with the Holy One of Blessing. The text describes an ancient ritual that, despite its foreignness to our modern sensibilities, can be read as a metaphor that, aliyah (individual section of the Torah reading) Read More >

  • November 6, 2008

    To Begin at the Beginning . . .
    By Hazzan Marcia Lane

    I have an affinity for stationery stores. I love the smell of new paper. I am constantly buying new notebooks, trying to find the perfect form of paper, lines, binding, cover that will inspire me to greater heights of insight and literary brilliance. I am delighted by the blank page, by the endless possibilities of the absence of words. What to write? What to think? What to communicate? A love letter? A thank you note? A journal page? An invoice? Blank pages are magical.

    Our parashah this week, B’reishit, is the blank page on which God writes. In fact, God enjoys the blank page so much that He writes not one but two stories of creation. In the first (Ch. 1:1 to 2:4), creation is described as a kind of song, a poem, a paean of creating. The language is Read More >

  • November 6, 2008

    Famine in the Land of Canaan – A Test of Abraham
    By Jaron Matlow

    Our Sages, of blessed memory, stated that God tested Abram ten times to ensure that Abram truly was a righteous person. According to Midrash Tanhuma (Lekh Lekha 5) one of those tests was the famine in the Land of Canaan (Bereshit 12:10). Our midrash further points out that there had never previously been such a famine in the Land.

    According to that midrash Abram’s response to this famine is to go down to Egypt, where there is food, despite the fact that he is aware of the character of Egyptians. On arrival in Egypt, Abram becomes aware of his mistake, and prays to God that he not be humiliated because of his plan. Sarai, upon realizing what is happening, shrieks out to God, “Master of the Universe, I used to know nothing. But since Abram said to me Read More >

  • October 29, 2008

    Seeing Our Choices More Clearly
    By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips

    “In the market, the blind cry out to the one-eyed as clear-sighted.” (Genesis Rabbah 30:9)

    These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah in a rabbinic dispute concerning Genesis 6:9, which declares that “Noah was a righteous man, unblemished in his generations.” Rabbi Yehudah is among those who interpret this statement as veiled condemnation – in other words, Noah could only be considered righteous and unblemished when compared with the majority of his time. In a period of utter moral blindness, the “one-eyed” Noah was the greatest hope for both humanity and the earth.

    Noah’s critics often focus on his apparent silence during his extended preparations for disaster – preparations which fulfill the letter of divine command, but do not reflect any active concern for those beyond his immediate family. To pursue this line of ethical reasoning, it might be helpful to have Read More >

  • October 29, 2008

    Seeing Our Choices More Clearly
    By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips

    “In the market, the blind cry out to the one-eyed as clear-sighted.” (Genesis Rabbah 30:9)

    These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah in a rabbinic dispute concerning Genesis 6:9, which declares that “Noah was a righteous man, unblemished in his generations.” Rabbi Yehudah is among those who interpret this statement as veiled condemnation – in other words, Noah could only be considered righteous and unblemished when compared with the majority of his time. In a period of utter moral blindness, the “one-eyed” Noah was the greatest hope for both humanity and the earth.

    Noah’s critics often focus on his apparent silence during his extended preparations for disaster – preparations which fulfill the letter of divine command, but do not reflect any active concern for those beyond his immediate family. To pursue this line of ethical reasoning, it might be helpful to have Read More >

  • October 18, 2008

    The Festival of Sukkot-Joy or Discomfort?
    By Rabbi David Greenstein

    The festival of Sukkot is traditionally called “Z’man Simchatenu – The Season of Our Joy.” This follows from the Biblical injunction that specifically emphasizes the mitzvah of rejoicing whenever this holiday is mentioned, whether in Leviticus – “And you shall rejoice before the Eternal One, your Almighty, for seven days.” (Lev. 23:40) or in Deuteronomy – “And you shall rejoice in your holiday (of Sukkot).” (Deut. 16:13)

    The primacy of this element is so strong that it endows Sukkot with a unique rule that is not present with regard to other commandments. This rule is the exemption of “mitzta`er – being in discomfort.” According to traditional Jewish law, while one must dwell in a sukkah for seven days in fulfillment of the Torah’s command, this obligation is set aside if doing so would cause a person discomfort. Now we must Read More >

  • October 3, 2008

    Shabbat Shuvah
    By Jill Minkoff

    Be Strong and Brave

    Half of forty years ago this season, I sent my youngest child to her first day of school. For both of us, it was fraught with excitement and fear. She had heard about this day for much of her life, a day of great possibility, yet a day of neither parent being able to accompany her. She felt pulled to her future yet reluctant to let go of the hand that had been with her for so much of her life. She was fearful and cried. Would she be safe in this new place? Would people be nice to her? (Do you remember how you felt on your first day of school or at some other major transition in your life?) We both felt anxious. At least, it was only for a few hours that she would be in school before returning Read More >

  • September 25, 2008

    By Sanford Olshansky

    “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you.” And Abraham arose early in the morning and saddled his ass and took his two lads with him and Isaac, his son, and split the wood for the burnt offering and got up and went to the place [of which] God told him. (Gen 22:2,3)

    I have an only son, whom I love. Until recently, he was a sports reporter, covering college hockey. His work took him, in the harshest winter, to isolated places such as Burlington, VT, Hanover, NH and Storrs, CT. After doing post-game interviews and filing his story, he drove, late at night, over icy highways, to his next destination. On many such nights I Read More >

  • September 25, 2008


    By Steve Altarescu

    At the beginning of parashat Nitzavim, Moses asks each one of the Jewish people to enter into the covenant with God. He tells them that Judaism is not just for the knowledgeable ones or the priestly classes but for each person including “the woodchopper to the water drawer.” (Deuteronomy 29:10) The oration offered is not only to those who were standing with Moses when he spoke but . . .” to those who are not here with us today.” (Deut. 29:14) Rashi says this refers to generations in the future, as every Jew living at that time was already mentioned in a prior verse.

    This is a very fitting scenario for a few days before Rosh Hashanah when we will be gathered as congregations and each of us will be asked to turn back and follow what is right and good. Each person will have his or her Read More >

  • September 17, 2008

    By Rabbi Daniel Horwitz

    There is a famous Jewish legend which has bothered me from the first time I heard it, when I was about 8 or 9 years old. According to this legend, the foundation for the song introducing Shabbat, Shalom Aleikhem, there are two malakhei ha-sharet, ministering angels, one good and one bad, who accompany a Jew when coming home on Shabbat eve. When the Jew arrives home, if Shabbat candles are set, the table prepared, and the house is beautiful for Shabbat, the good angel says: So may it be next Shabbat. And the bad angel, against his will, must say: Amen. And if the opposite is true, the bad angel says: so may it be the next Shabbat. And the good angel, against his will, now must also say: Amen.

    I didn’t grow up keeping Shabbat, but that part wasn’t an issue for me. I understood Shabbat Read More >

  • September 11, 2008

    The Paradox of Memory
    By Rabbi Allen Darnov

    It is amusing how Jews curse enemies by reciting the enemy’s name and then adding the phrase in Hebrew (or Yiddish) “may his name be blotted out” We might say something like “…that evil Hitler, may his name be blotted out!…” Amusing, because one cannot rub a name out of existence by making a point of mentioning it.

    It seems that the impetus in Jewish life to remember is very strong – even stronger than the mitzvah to forget something evil. The result is a paradox. And the paradox is explicit, as a matter of fact, in Ki Tetze, this week’s Torah portion. On the one hand, the book of Deuteronomy commands us to rub out the memory of Amalek (25:19) much in the way that ancient Pharaohs would rub out the hieroglyph denoting a predecessor’s name, thus extinguishing memory of a forebear. Read More >

  • September 2, 2008

    By Halina Rubinstein

    The last section of this week’s parashah describes the strange ritual of the eglah `arufah, the ‘broken heifer.’ When a person is found dead in the middle of a field and the killer is not known, the elders of the closest city take a heifer that has yet to be trained to work, break its neck and pray for forgiveness in order to establish their innocence. This is a remarkable expression of communal responsibility. In light of call of the parashah to pursue justice, it is inconceivable that the community would let something like this happen. Yet they were not able to protect and provide for the individual who was killed. Therefore, they consider themselves responsible; they acknowledge their guilt and cleanse themselves of it through this ritual.

    I cannot help but relate this to one of the most intense experiences of my life. This past June, my husband, Read More >

  • August 28, 2008

    By Maralee Gordon
    Shabbat Re’eh is the beginning of Labor Day Weekend this year. Often we view Labor Day as its oxymoron-a day off from labor. But of course, it is meant to call attention to the contributions of workers to our society. The U.S. Department of Labor states:

    Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

    Many of our ancestors were involved in the nascent labor movement at the turn of the 20th century, in which they struggled to make sure that those on the edge of poverty were able to work under decent conditions rather than slave away in inhumane circumstances for less than living wages.

    Re’eh can help us to understand Read More >

  • August 19, 2008

    Parashat Eqev – Assembling the Menorah
    By Moshe Rudin

    As careful readers of the Torah text- both the text given to us at Sinai and its commentary that God reveals to each of us through the unfolding text of our lives- we have been taught to be constantly on the lookout for the unusual turn of phrase or the unexpected word. We have learned that it is from the seemingly out of place language that there emerge tilei tilim – heaps and heaps – of insight and teachings.

    One such word emerges from the first pasuq (verse) of this week’s parashah: Eqev. The pasuq reads: It shall be that following upon (eqev) that you listen to these ordinances, that you keep and do them, that HaShem your God will keep for you the Covenant (Brit) and the Lovingkindness which God swore to your ancestors.

    Eqev is a term Read More >

  • August 15, 2008

    The Last Lecture
    By Sandra Kilstein

    The bittersweet stage of the Jewish calendar cycle is reflected in the overtones of Parashat V’etchanan. The feelings of having made it through the Three Weeks of mourning parallels the feeling of relief and the ability to move forward after the defeat of Og and Sichon It is the time of transition from the struggles of the desert to the forward-looking planning involved in settling The Land.

    Yet for Moshe, the struggle remains. V’etchanan is the heart-wrenching plea of the ever modest leader of a great nation, a man obsessed with entering The Land. V’etchanan is the language of deepest humility ‘ a beseeching, an imploring request from someone who acknowledges that he may be unworthy, but asks nevertheless. Indeed, the word v’etchanan is related to cheenam, ‘free.’ Moshe asks for a free gift, despite the fact that his deeds don’t merit this reward.

    Denied, he returns to Read More >

  • July 31, 2008

    By Dr. Ora Horn Prouser

    Parashat Mas’ei
    concludes the Book of Bemidbar, bringing together elements of the desert period, and drawing various parts to their logical conclusions. It traces the travels and encampments of the Israelites throughout the whole period of wandering. It then looks forward, setting boundaries and borders for Israel once they enter the land, and appointing leaders to oversee that land division. There is then a focus on the cities of refuge, which is a major element in structuring society based on justice and fairness. This is all very fitting as all that stands between the Israelites and their entry into the land is Moses’ concluding speech in Deuteronomy.

    All of this would work beautifully, but, this is not how Parashat Mas’ei ends. The last section of the parashah brings back the case of the daughters of Zelophehad. Earlier in the Book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad Read More >

  • July 16, 2008

    How Do We Settle the Holy Land?
    By Jaron Matlow

    Whenever a new nation settled in a land, it took great wisdom on the part of the leaders to ensure that the land was settled equitably. Parashat Pinhas provides the initial instructions for how the land is to be distributed to the nine and one half tribes who will settle in the Holy Land.(Reuven, Gad and Menasheh settled in the Trans-Jordan, as previously arranged with Moshe.) There is always an additional issue to contend with, which is how to deal with the existing land holders. God gave Moshe instructions for dealing with the Canaanites in other parashiot.

    In our parashah God says that the land shall be divided by lottery. (Bamidbar 26:55) In order to prepare for this, God told Moshe and El’azar to take a census of all of the Israelites who are 20 years and older, according to their father’s houses, Read More >

  • July 9, 2008

    By Diane M. Sharon, Ph.D.

    Balak is a Moabite king who feels his sovereignty threatened by the numerous tribes of Israel as they wander in the wilderness towards the Land of Promise. Balak, along with a Midianite coalition, commissions a renowned Aramean prophet, Balaam son of Beor, to curse the Hebrew tribes to drive them away. What is this foreign prophet doing in the Hebrew Bible? The first words we hear out of his mouth invite the Midianite and Moabite embassy to wait overnight for his answer while he consults the God of Israel, whom he refers to by the Tetragrammaton – YHWH.

    Here is the irony of a foreign prophet consulting the Hebrew God, and the further irony that God actually comes to Balaam in a dream, and forbids the prophet from cursing the people whom God has blessed. God’s universal sovereignty is affirmed in this story: God is Read More >

  • July 3, 2008

    The Power of Foresight
    By Hayley Siegel
    and
    The Transforming Essence
    By Moshe Rudin

    The Power of Foresight
    In this week’s parashah, Huqqat, one of the most shocking events in the entire Torah occurs. Despite forty dedicated years of service as teacher, general, and counselor on behalf of God and the Israelites, Moses is told by God that he will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land with the tribe!

    The reason? A conversation with a rock puts Moses in a hard place! When the children of Israel complain that they are thirsty, Moses turns to God for help in securing water in the dry desert. God provides Moses with an immediate solution. All Moses must do is speak softy to a rock, and this conversation will supply all of the tribe and animals with their desired water. As complaints and groans from his thirsty tribe members beat down upon him like a waterfall, Read More >

  • June 18, 2008

    By Cantor Kathy Barr

    IT’S DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN!

    “How long will this people continue to mutter against me?” Deja vu. How many times so far in the Torah have we read this complaint from the Eternal? We seem to be a people of kvetching, easily swayed to follow the crowd, constantly needing to be reminded of promises; to be reassured that the chosen path is the correct one.

    We all know the story: Moses sends 12 spies to check out the land that they are to inhabit. What kind of food grows there? Is the soil arable? What of the people, are they strong or weak? Are the cities fortified?

    The spies return with a huge cluster of grapes, and pomegranates and figs; but ten of them warn that even though it is a good land, the inhabitants are giant and formidable, and if we attempt to enter the Read More >

  • June 11, 2008

    By Rabbi Katy Allen

    Here in New England, the trees are almost fully leafed out. The brilliant yellow marsh marigolds have come and gone. The tiny, delicate bluets blanket the meadows as if with snow. Trillium dot the woods, and the lady slippers are bursting forth.

    One could think that all is right in the world.

    Then you notice invasive garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, and Japanese bittersweet. Alien species such as these are pushing out native plants from woods, wetlands, and open spaces. Deer are eating every wildflower in sight. The diversity of our wild areas is declining.

    All isn’t right with the world after all.

    This week we read, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their seasons, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” (Lev. 26:3) Our Torah clearly Read More >

  • May 16, 2008

    Parashat Behar
    By Rabbi Aryeh Meir

    As we celebrate Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on the kind of society that has emerged with the advent of Israel’s great “economic miracle.” I begin by quoting several reflections on Israeli society:

    The average Israeli works twelve years before his cumulative pay equals the monthly salary of the CEO of a large firm. The average wage for women is two thirds of that for men while Arabs earn, on average, 30% less than Jews. But those may not be the most alarming figures revealed in a new study conducted by the Adva Institute, researchers also report the number of high school students eligible for matriculation certificates is on a steep decline. The institute displays a frightening and gloomy portrait of the situation of Israeli society. The gaps between Israel’s rich and poor are only growing, the institute says, despite the impressive economic growth Read More >

  • April 18, 2008

    To Love Another Person Is to See the Face of God
    By Laurie Levy

    “To love another person is to see the face of God”
    (Jean Valjean in Les Miserables)

    I recently saw the show Spring Awakening on Broadway. It is the story of a group of adolescents dealing with the mystifying and consuming discovery of their sexual awakening – all the more dramatic because it is set against the backdrop of late 19th century Germany where information and education about sex was nonexistent. The show is no less relevant for today, when more than we would ever want our children to know about sex is but a website away. Even our Sages understood the need to embrace the awakening of one’s longings and desires in the springtime and so on the Shabbat that falls during Passover, we read Shir haShirim, The Song of Songs, a poem filled with images of spring and nature Read More >

  • April 16, 2008

    The Shabbat before Pesach is referred in medieval sources as Shabbat haGadol ‘ the Great Shabbat. But there is a range of opinions about its relationship to the Exodus narrative. According to these
    sources, it was on the Shabbat preceding the first Pesach that Israel was commanded to take a lamb per household in preparation for the night of liberation, a precursor to the great events that were to come. Seizing a lamb, the totem of Egypt’s divinity, required a miracle ‘ hence the name Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat of the Great ‘ i.e. of God (Tur).

    Another etymological possibility lies in the traditional practice of reciting most of the Haggadah after Minhah and reviewing the laws of Pesach during morning services on the Shabbat preceding Pesach. Quite a lot of ground to cover . . . Shabbat HaGadol then becomes ‘that really long Shabbat’ (Shibbolei HaLeket). Read More >

  • April 8, 2008

    By Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman

    Someone once said, only half in jest (paraphrasing the well-known Rabbinic dictum in Pirkei Avot), that “Whoever manages to give a decent derashah about Tazria-Metzora brings redemption to the word.” And indeed, one is hard to imagine any section of the Torah more alien to the modern world, than these two parshiyot, devoted entirely to the detailed description of various kinds of ritual impurity issuing from the human body. Parashat Metzora, specifically, is concerned with the ritual to be performed for one healed of tzara’at (“leprosy”: i.e., certain skin effusions described in the previous parashah); tzara’at of houses; and various discharges, normal and abnormal, from the sexual organs of men and women.

    What are we to make of all this? One explanation put forward in recent years (first articulated by Rachel Adler in the first volume Read More >

  • March 26, 2008

    By Sanford Olshansky

    Many traditional Jews believe that the entire Torah was revealed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Accordingly, they have no problem with the existence of mitzvot (commandments) that appear to have no practical purpose. In fact, they delight in performing such commandments. For example, Yeshayahu Leibowitz has written, in an article in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, that

    Every reason given for the mitzvot that bases itself on human needs . . . voids the mitzvot of all religious meaning. For if the mitzvot . . . are meant to benefit society, or . . . to maintain the Jewish people, then he who performs them serves not God but himself, his society or his people.1

    Many liberal Jews prefer to believe that there is a practical benefit in some of the Torah’s mitzvot, especially if this practical benefit is something Read More >

  • March 18, 2008

    By Mark Getman

    Vayikra
    (Leviticus) is the name not only of this week’s parashah, but also of the entire third book of the Torah. Though the book has much to say about the sacrificial system, it also teaches us how we should interact with our fellow Jews and other human beings. Although written thousands of years ago Vayikra lays the foundation for law and order in society, an order that can be applied to contemporary times.

    In Chapter 5, verses 20-24, we read: The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: If a person will sin and commit a treachery against The Lord by lying to his comrade regarding a pledge or a loan or a robbery: or by defrauding his comrade; or he found a lost item and denied it – and he swore falsely about any of all the things that a person can do and sin thereby – so it shall Read More >

  • March 18, 2008

    By Susan Elkodsi

    Parashat Tzav continues the instructions for sacrifices, and lays out the role of the kohanim (priests), in this case – Aaron and his sons. It could easily be seen as an instruction manual for the kohanim, complete with a priestly guide to “dressing for success,” offering specific instructions on what the priest must wear depending on the task he is performing. Preceding the commandments about the sacrifices themselves is a commandment regarding the fire on the altar which was required to burn perpetually, an aish tamid. The offering was to burn all night, and the priest was required to feed the fire every morning. This parashah offers explicit detail about certain tasks, but doesn’t appear to mention what happens to the fire overnight.

    In order to continue burning, a fire must be fed and tended. When my husband’s boy scout troop had a Shabbat campout, the fire was arranged Read More >

  • February 20, 2008

    Parashat Tetzaveh
    By Rabbi Aryeh Meir

    This week Qassam rockets fell on the Israeli town of Sderot, severely injuring two brothers. The rockets, fired by Palestinian militants from just across the border in Gaza, have been raining down upon Sderot and environs for months and years, terrorizing the populace and perplexing Israel’s leaders.

    And this week, some of the people of Sderot and their supporters stopped traffic on the main road to Jerusalem and marched to the office of the Prime Minister to demonstrate their anger and frustration with the inability of the governments to end the rocket fire.

    This coming Shabbat, in the synagogues of Sderot, as in every other synagogue in the world, Jews will be reading and discussing the Torah portion detailing the vestments of the Kohanim, the priests, in the ancient desert sanctuary.

    What is the connection between Sderot and the vestments of the Kohanim? Among the garments of Read More >

  • February 20, 2008

    Parashat Ki Tissa
    By Suri Krieger

    Moses had a double! That’s right. Moses was not the only prophet to part the waters, or to experience a Revelation on Mt. Sinai, or to have a highly unusual end-of life occurrence. Granted, our first and foremost prophet earned his reputation with miracles and fireworks. But so did his double, Elijah the Prophet. Elijah is the only other prophet who comes close to facilitating miracles on the scale of grandeur associated with Moses.

    Is Elijah really a double Moses? Look at the similarities:

    He really did part the waters. Just before he is carried up in a chariot to the heavens, he lifts his mantel and the waters of the Jordan River part for Elisha (his successor) and himself to pass through. That mantle is to Elijah what the staff is to Moses.

    Elijah walks 40 days and nights until he reaches Har Horev, another name for Mt. Read More >

  • January 22, 2008

    Parashat BeShalah: Shabbat Shirah 5768
    The Power of Song
    By Hazzan Ram’n Tasat

    I remember it clearly; it was around 1970 when, for the first time, I heard the music of a Spanish group, proscribed at the time by the Franco Administration. The group was called “Aguaviva” and hardly anyone remembers them anymore. The words of their songs remain with me forever:

    . . . My brother, yours is the house, the fire, the harvest. I take with me the song. Everything is yours but I leave you mute. And how are you going to light the fire and harvest the crops if I take away the song from you . . .

    Standing at the sea was a time of rebellion, a time to leave behind the known slavery, to submerge ourselves in the unfamiliar, the unknown. Not all agreed, some were not even consulted and yet they trusted their leader. Read More >

  • January 22, 2008

    The Makings of a Great Leader
    Hayley Siegel

    In Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:10, our teachers Shemayah and Avtalyon teach, ‘Do not become overly familiar with the government.’ Indeed, our rabbis probably could never have imagined an election season quite like this one!

    With groundbreaking candidates, including an African-American, a female, a Mormon, and a Jewish candidate (possibly) running in the 2008 Presidential election, who wouldn’t want to pay attention to this year’s primaries and campaigns?! With the myriad ads, speeches, and publicity events flashing before our overwhelmed eyes, it can be difficult to separate the truth from the hype. Luckily for us, Moses’ creation of the first Israelite government in Parashat Yitro gives us the perfect opportunity to gain insight into the qualities we should take into account when we elect leaders for our government.

    In last week’s parashah, B’Shalah, we read of the tribe’s dramatic escape from Egypt. Read More >

  • January 10, 2008

    By Boaz Marmon

    At first glance, we probably think of Parashat Bo, as a “middle.” It tells the middle of the Exodus story, beginning in the middle of the ten plagues and ending in the middle of the escape from Egypt. Perhaps, on second thought, it’s a tale of “ends”: the end of the plagues, the end of bondage. What’s easy to miss is how much Parashat Bo is about beginnings.

    According to the sage Rabbi Yitzchak, as quoted by the Yalkut Shim’oni and famously cited by Rashi as his first comment on the Torah, the Torah need not have begun until the verse “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you,” (Ex. 12:2) which appears around the middle of the middle aliyah of Bo. This is the first command given by Read More >

  • December 27, 2007

    By Linda Shriner-Cahn

    In memory of my father, whose yarhzeit is the 24th of Tevet.

    In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, we once more are given all of the names of the sons of Israel, linking this second book of the Torah to the first. Their names are brimming with meaning.

    Sh’mot means ‘names.’ Names are critical in understanding who we are and how we relate to the world. It is Adam who names the animals, giving him a sense of dominion over his surroundings. The process of naming something is empowering. For a brief moment we are granted insight into the power of a name. When we name our children we invest the future of that child into their name.

    Every week as we make Kiddush (the blessing of sanctification of the Shabbat, recited over a cup of wine) on Friday night we recount the separation Read More >

  • December 10, 2007

    By Susan Elkodsi

    In Parashat Vayigash we witness the emotional reunion of Joseph and his brothers, and ultimately Joseph’s reunion with his father. Initially, it appears that the parashah’s focus is on Joseph, the man who saves his family during the time of great famine. But I believe that Judah is the ‘hero’ of the story, and with the benefit of hindsight, that history supports this. In time, Judah becomes one of the promised land’s mighty nations. We, the Jewish people, get our name from him as well. What makes Judah deserving of this honor and ultimate legacy? After all, Judah was the brother responsible for selling Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders, and presumably he who showed Jacob the blood-stained tunic, allowing him to jump to the conclusion that his favorite son had been eaten by a beast.

    As we see, a lot can happen in 22 years. Consider that for Read More >

  • December 4, 2007

    By Sanford Olshansky

    And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”
    (Gen 41:15, 16)

    “Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.” . . . And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (Gen 41:33, 38)

    These verses bracket the central dramatic moment of this parashah and one of the two great dramatic moments in the story of Joseph. (The other is his reconciliation with his brothers, which occurs in the next parashah, Vayigash.) Among other things, the scene in which he interprets Read More >

  • November 27, 2007

    Divine and Human ‘Nudging’ on the Path of One’s Destiny
    By Jill Minkoff

    Va-Yeshev is primarily the story of Joseph’s descent into Egypt. It is a necessary precursor to the birth of the Jewish people and the subsequent story of redemption and journey to freedom. It is a story of seemingly bad luck that eventually turns out for the best.

    We are introduced to Joseph at age seventeen. He is his father Jacob’s favorite son. He reports to his father the wrongdoings of his brothers. And, he tells his family of dreams he has had, in which they become subservient to him. It is no wonder that Joseph’s brothers are jealous and angry. Although Jacob is keenly aware of this matter, he chooses to send Joseph on an errand to observe the brothers in the pasture and report back on how they and the flocks are doing. As Joseph journeys to find his Read More >

  • November 20, 2007

    By Halina Rubinstein

    25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
    26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.
    27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
    28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”
    29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human,and have prevailed.” [. . .] 32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
    Read More >

  • November 13, 2007

    Mountain, Field and House
    By Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman

    “How awesome is this place! This is naught but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven . . .” (Gen 28:17

    This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s unexpected and numinous encounter with God, en route from his home to the unknown land of his ancestors ‘ a meeting that was to be both a turning point in his own life, and a paradigm for future generations. “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know it” (28:16). In several Talmudic passages, the Sages discuss this passage in relation to events in the lives of the other two patriarchs. One (Berakhot 26b) portrays the fathers introducing each of the three daily prayers. (See my discussion at: http://hitzeiyehonatan.blogspot.com/, under the heading: Hayyei Sarah). Another (Pesahim 88a) speaks of the three patriarchs relating Read More >

  • November 7, 2007

    By Tad Campbell

    In honor of my teacher and chaver, Rabbi Joel S. Wasser.

    Travel the world, or simply look at the foreign coins mixed up with your regular change and the most obvious thing about any, whether large or small, is that each has two sides. These opposite sides feature images of the national flower or bird, musical instruments, historical events and monarchs and national leaders. These small monetary tokens can in many ways, resemble tiny, fascinating, priceless works of art.

    This week’s parashah, Toldot, calls upon this idea to explain how this section of the Torah unfolds. Esau and Jacob, though twins, are not identical. Each has his own personality and mindset as well as obvious talents and abilities. Esau is far more than simply the oldest; he is the son who, in a way, resembles his father Isaac in terms of being drawn to the fields and caring for Read More >

  • October 30, 2007

    By Rabbi David Greenstein

    Our Torah reading begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. Abraham comes ‘to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her.’ (Gen. 23:2) The order of the verbs in this verse is noteworthy. One might have expected that Abraham’s first reaction would be to cry, while only afterwards would he go about the public act of eulogizing his life partner. Indeed, the next verse says that Abraham ‘arose from before his corpse’ in order to deal with the practical matters of burial, including finding a burial plot that would serve for Sarah and for the family.

    The working out of our personal and public roles as mourners and as bereaved family and community is thus an important theme of this story. There is an undeniable private dimension to the experience of loss. But Abraham also understood that by further engaging in the public act of eulogizing Sarah Read More >

  • October 23, 2007

    By Jaron Matlow

    Water is a very simple chemical molecule. It contains one Oxygen atom and two Hydrogen atoms, and it appears in the shape of the letter V. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, water has tremendous powers in the world of chemistry. These powers are the very reason life can exist on our planet.

    Interestingly enough, water has a molecular weight of 18. The number 18 is, of course, very significant in the world of gematria, the study of the numerical value of Hebrew words. Gematria is based on values assigned to each Hebrew letter in their sequence in the Aleph-Bet. Aleph is one, bet is two, and so on. The number 18, is of course the value of the Hebrew word, Hai, (Yu’d, 10; He’t, 8) – meaning, to be alive. Thus in both the worlds of chemistry and the spiritual, water has a very Read More >

  • October 16, 2007

    By Helene Santo

    This week’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God saying to Avram:”Lekh l’kha (Go), me’artz’kha (from your land), mimolad’t’kha (from where you were born or according to other translations: from your family), umibeit avikha (and from your father’s house), el ha-aretz asher ar’eka (to a land that I will show you).” (Gen. 12:1)

    Three years ago on this parashah, my daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah. She wondered whether how and even if God wrote the Torah. When she read that opening line, she asked what Avram heard. Did he hear a big booming voice? Did he hear a voice inside his head? Or did he hear something so supernatural it could be nothing but God? Most importantly, does it matter?

    Many people believe that God literally dictated the Torah-the Five Books of Moses-to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But there are many parts of the Torah itself that suggest that Moses Read More >

  • October 10, 2007

    By Michael Kohn

    Two years ago, as the flood waters from Hurricane Katrina raged in New Orleans, some thought it necessary to remark that the devastation wrought by the storm was divine retribution for the sins of the people living in that area. According to press reports, some prominent Rabbis described Hurricane Katrina as America’s punishment for supporting Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and/or condemned its mainly African-American victims for failing to study Torah. And another noted an article he had written in which he suggested that the sinfulness of New Orleans residents, rather than the Gaza withdrawal, might explain the destruction and death Katrina visited on their city in particular.

    These comments, coming from those who believe in the literal truth of the Torah, raise a troubling theological question: “Does G-d keep a promise?” For if mankind’s sins can result in a divine act of retribution large enough to ravage a city, Read More >

  • October 10, 2007

    By Michael Kohn

    Two years ago, as the flood waters from Hurricane Katrina raged in New Orleans, some thought it necessary to remark that the devastation wrought by the storm was divine retribution for the sins of the people living in that area. According to press reports, some prominent Rabbis described Hurricane Katrina as America’s punishment for supporting Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and/or condemned its mainly African-American victims for failing to study Torah. And another noted an article he had written in which he suggested that the sinfulness of New Orleans residents, rather than the Gaza withdrawal, might explain the destruction and death Katrina visited on their city in particular.

    These comments, coming from those who believe in the literal truth of the Torah, raise a troubling theological question: “Does G-d keep a promise?” For if mankind’s sins can result in a divine act of retribution large enough to ravage a city, Read More >

  • September 25, 2007

    By Rabbi Leslie Schotz

    “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups-the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

    You may recognize that opening from a show called “Law and Order” which follows crime from two separate vantage points. The first half generally concentrates on the investigation of a crime by the police; the second half follows the prosecution of the crime in court.

    Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. The liturgy calls upon the analogy of a great trial. On this day, the world is judged. In Franz Kafka’s book The Trial, the helpless victim doesn’t even know what his crime is. Just before the hero is killed, he wonders where was the judge whom he had never seen? But our trial on Rosh Hashanah is not cruel or by Read More >

  • September 25, 2007

    Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

    The new year we began just last week stretches before us like an empty canvas and we pause to reflect before it. What are we going to paint on it this year? What will we write upon it? How do we make a difference with our lives? What really matters? It is a fresh start, a new beginning and, like the school kids’ brand-new, blank notebooks, for me it comes with excitement and enthusiasm. How can I fill it, and fill it well?

    This year I am concerned about the tenor of our conversations. In an age of 24/7 communication, we often don’t stop to think about the impact of our words in the political world, in our work world, in our congregations or in our families. We forget to take time to think before we speak. We have grown Read More >

  • September 25, 2007

    Nostalgia – is it enough?
    By Rabbi Robert Waxman

    In Webster’s contemporary formulation, nostalgia is “longing for something far away or long ago.”

    As we gather for Yizkor a wave of nostalgia fills the room. We are looking back, remembering. For some, we are looking back at a safe distance. For others, memories of loss and disappointments are as close as this past year.

    Nostalgia is a big part of religious thought, for we can’t rely upon fate or biological ancestry to cultivate Jewish loyalty. Yet, we can’t return to shtetl nostalgia to assure Jewish continuity either: Tevya’s cry of “tradition” is no answer for his children’s questions. In fact, Tevya failed with his children. “Fiddler on the Roof” is musical entertainment, not reality. The shift has turned from external to internal, from fate to choice. Our children ask “what for?” They must be persuaded morally, spiritually, intellectually of the meaning and merits Read More >

  • August 2, 2007

    By Dr. Ora Horn Prouser

    As we finish preparing for Rosh Hashanah, I would like to offer a few words of Torah. The traditional Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah includes the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham and Sarah’s home. As they wander out in the desert, Hagar, unable to watch the agony and anticipated death of her son, places him under a bush and sits down at a distance in tears. When the angel approaches Hagar explaining that she needn’t fear and that they would not die, she is directed to pick up her son, and ‘hold him by the hand.’ She then is able to see a nearby well; they drink, and survive the horrific experience. It is significant that God did not need to tell Hagar to drink or to provide water for her son; she knew to Read More >

  • July 10, 2007

    By Rabbi Jeff Hoffman

    I’m a guitarist. Have been for many years. On the guitar case of one of my guitars, I have affixed a bumper sticker that reads ‘What would Jerry say?’ The ‘Jerry’ referred to is Jerry Garcia, the late lead guitarist for the greatest rock ‘n roll band the world has known, The Grateful Dead. The bumper sticker is, of course, a knock-off of a contemporary Christian saying which substitutes another name that begins with a ‘J’ for the ‘Jerry’ in this sticker. I’m thinking about the sticker on my guitar case because it applies, in a way, to the Haftarah for this Shabbat. The point of the Haftarah can be seen as ‘What would Jeremiah say?’

    The haftarah for this Shabbat is the second of the T’lata DePur`anuta, ‘the three (haftarot of) (Warning of) Punishment.’ These three haftarot are always read on the three Shabbatot that precede Tisha Read More >