• August 13, 2020

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    “And you will rejoice before the Lord, your God, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your maid-servant and Levite who is within your gates, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow that is among you.” (Deuteronomy 16:11)

    I recently asked my teacher, Dr. Victoria Hoffer, why, when she published the first edition of her textbook Biblical Hebrew, she chose the above verse for the cover. She told me that, too often, students come to the study of Hebrew with a kind of grim seriousness. She wanted a verse that expressed the joy of learning and of studying the Bible in its original language.

    Knowing that book cover as well as I do, the verse jumped out at me from this week’s parashah, Re’eh. It did so for reasons beyond familiarity; reasons similar to Dr. Hoffer’s. Our parashah too Read More >

  • June 26, 2020

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Korah
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    “The Torah of Adonai is perfect, reviving the soul,” reads the psalm (19:8). The word used here for perfection, temimah, implies completeness, but also simplicity, like a platonic ideal – something that exists in our minds but which can only be rendered in flawed representation here on earth. To change something that is perfect is to diminish it. Thus, the idea of perfection in revelation can lead one to a kind of fundamentalism that summarily rejects changes as thwarting, or at least diminishing, God’s will.

    Yet, the Torah that is the Book of Numbers challenges this conception of perfection. In last week’s parashah, we learned that the Israelites did not know what to do with one who violated the Sabbath and needed Moses’s intervention to find out (Numbers 15:32-36). In the previous parashah, the Israelites challenged Moses over who was disqualified from offering Read More >

  • May 8, 2020

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Emor
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11)

    A well-known midrash tells of Rabbi Yehoshua bemoaning the destruction of the Temple – “the place that atoned for Israel’s sins” – to his master, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Yohanan comforts his disciple with the observation that “we have another means of gaining atonement: through deeds of loving kindness, as it is written (Hosea 6:6) ‘I desire deeds of loving kindness, not sacrifice.’” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5)

    Comforting as this midrash might be, it reduces the Temple to a single function: atoning for sin. Yet were this really its primary purpose, why are prayers for the Temple’s restoration so ubiquitous in our liturgy? As one who has ever uttered those prayers with discomfort, I think we need to look more deeply for the answer.

    For many of us, our discomfort with the idea of the restoration of the Temple goes beyond our Read More >

  • March 20, 2020


    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayak’hel P’kudei
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)What does it mean to have a “willing heart?” The phrase is used three times in the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Vayak’hel/P’kudei (Exodus 35:5, 22, and 29). It likewise appears in Parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:2. In each instance the circumstances are the same; it describes the voluntary donations of precious materials (gold, silver, jewels, rare fabrics) used for the construction of the Mishkan – God’s dwelling place among the Israelite tribes. These donations are all made by those whose heart moves them to do so, and they are made in such profusion that Moses ultimately must command the Israelites to stop (Exodus 36:6).

    But we only realize how evocative is the phrase “willing heart” when we consider the source of these gifts. These materials were acquired by the Israelites as they left Egypt, stripping it of its precious Read More >

  • January 29, 2020

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.” (Exodus 12:2) This has to be one of the most jarring verses in all of Torah. After eleven uninterrupted chapters of perhaps the most dramatic story ever told – the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh – we find ourselves in what quickly becomes a detailed discussion of the observance of the festival of Pesah. Gone is the ratcheting tension of human obstinacy in the face of divine wrath and in its place, twenty-eight verses of calendars, cooking instructions and details for future observances.

    And yet, in this mass of interrupting detail, I find the answer to what I consider a particularly troubling verse in this week’s parashah, Bo. It too concerns the celebration of a festival. Faced with yet another plague, Pharaoh asks Moses who among the Israelites will depart with him should he Read More >

  • December 12, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlah
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    Two recent experiences color my reading of this week’s parashah, Vayishlah. The first involved my family watching When Harry Met Sally for the umpteenth time. After the movie, we turned to the DVD’s special features which included an interview with the screenwriter, the wonderful Nora Ephron. In it she said that there were two kinds of romantic comedies. In the Christian kind, the protagonists are kept apart by a real, physical barrier. In the Jewish kind, they are separated by the man’s neuroses.

    I thought about that as I read of Jacob’s preparations to meet his brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s parashah. First he sends an obsequious message to Esau hoping for a favorable reply (Gen. 32:4-6). When that fails, he divides his camp in two, seeking to secure the safety of at least part of his clan (Gen. 32:8-9). Then he sends gifts to Read More >

  • October 25, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Bereishit
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    For many years now, I have been intrigued by one particular reading in my synagogue’s High Holiday mahzor (Mahzor Hadash, The Prayer Book Press). Entitled “Continuing Creation,” it says that “our Sages taught, the human being is ‘God’s partner in the work of Creation.’ God and we create together.” It goes on to say: “There is still much to be done: disease to be conquered, injustice and poverty to overcome, hatred and war to be eliminated. There is truth to be discovered, beauty to be fashioned, freedom to be achieved, peace and righteousness to be established.”

    This reading’s appeal rests on its nobility: lofty, even holy goals that become the mission toward which we work. In positing us as God’s partners in the work of Creation, this passage invests our lives with a transcendent purpose and significance.

    But what exactly does it mean to say that we Read More >

  • September 13, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tetzei
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    As a rabbinical student, I attended a lecture taught by a sofer – a scribe – who demonstrated for us some of the tools he used in creating a Torah scroll. Among them was a sheet of parchment covered with ink blotches. The scribe showed us how, before beginning to work on the scroll, he would inscribe the name Amalek on this sheet and then blot it out. Thus did he honor (if not exactly fulfill) the commandments in this week’s Torah portion to both remember Amalek and erase the memory of him (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

    This exercise strikes me as a clever if incomplete way of dealing with apparently contradictory commandments. There are other places in Deuteronomy where we are asked to reconcile commandments or statements that are at odds with each other. Notably, two weeks ago, in Parashat Re’eh, we read first that “there Read More >

  • July 17, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Balak
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    My family has a habit of frequenting struggling restaurants, which means we often wind up befriending their owners. And, given my limited menu choices, those owners usually soon discover that we are Jewish. One night, many years ago, my wife was talking to one of these owners about the difficulties she was facing in her own business. To which the struggling restaurateur replied “Oh, you don’t have to worry. You’re Jewish and God doesn’t let Jewish businesses fail.”

    This week’s Torah portion and its story of Balaam, the heathen prophet hired by Moabite king Balak to curse Israel, brought that evening at that long since shuttered restaurant to mind. Having twice failed in his mission, we are told that Balaam turns his gaze to the wilderness where he lifts his eyes and sees Israel “encamped tribe by tribe.” (Numbers, 24:2) The vision Read More >

  • May 30, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Behukkotai
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    Reading this week’s Torah portion, I found myself as influenced by what is not in it as what is. What is not in it are the opening words “And God spoke to Moses, saying …” Those words, ubiquitous throughout the middle books of the Torah (they do appear half-way through this week’s parashah), do more than testify to the provenance of the revelation that follows them. They also create a distance between ourselves and those words by letting us know that we are hearing them, not directly, but as transmitted through an intermediary.

    The “And God spoke to Moses” to which the opening words of this week’s parashah do not attach, appear all the way at the beginning of last week’s parashah. Even when these two parashiyot are read together, 56 verses separate us from the last mention of Moses’s mediating role. As a result, Read More >

  • April 12, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Metzorah
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    A few years ago I passed the age at which my mother died. Doing so changed my perspective on my own life. I still want to think of my continuing good health as an entitlement, but it’s hard to do so when you have lived longer than the one who gave you life. Indeed, if there is one prayer that I utter more than any other, it is the one about the nikavim nikavim, halulim halulim – the complex of passageways and orifices that make up the human body, the proper functioning of each one being necessary for our existence.

    I thought about that passage while reading of the purification ritual for one who has been cured of tzara-at. Often mistranslated as leprosy, I long ago gave up trying to understand what disease or collection of diseases tzara-at might be.  Instead, it has become for me a Read More >

  • February 13, 2019


    A D’var Torah for Parashat Tetzavah
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    I imagine that I am like many people who read Terumah and Tetzavah – last week’s and this week’s Torah portions – with a mixture of frustration and intrigue; frustration at being unable to fully follow the details of the design of the Mishkan and its many furnishings, and intrigue because of the materials used: glowing jewels, gleaming metals and rich fabrics.

    Yet in reading through this week’s details of the priestly robes, particularly those of the high priest, one detail stuck out to me. The two most unusual garments, the Ephod and the Hoshen Mishpat (essentially a vest and a breastplate) both were adorned with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The reason given for this adornment is the same for both garments: as a remembrance before the Lord (Exodus 28:12 & 29)

    But we might ask, remembrance of Read More >

  • December 27, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    Living up to its own name, our Torah portion, Shemot – Names – has a lot of them. Some of them are known to us. Some are new. And some aren’t given at all.

    Among the new names are those of Shiphrah and Puah – the two midwives whom Pharaoh orders to kill all the male Israelite newborns. And therein lies a curiosity. We know the names of the servants. We don’t know the name of the king they serve. Indeed, his only identifying characteristic seems to be that he “did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8).

    The Rashi on this verse directs us to a dispute in the Talmud between Rav and Shmuel as to this Pharaoh’s identity (Sotah 11a). One insists that he really is a new leader, while the other claims it was the same Pharaoh as in Joseph’s time who issued new decrees following the latter’s Read More >

  • November 1, 2018
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Hayyei Sarah
    by Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)My Jewish upbringing was entirely cultural, not religious. Yiddish aphorisms did more to shape my identity than any biblical story. For a long time I missed the irony that, though raised an atheist, I was taught to believe that certain things were basheyrt – meant to be.

    Certainly the Torah wants us to understand the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac as basheyrt. That seems to be the import of Rebecca’s birth providing the coda to the Akeida. That seems to be the sense we are to take from her anticipated appearance to Abraham’s servant. And that seems to be the feeling conveyed by the story of Rebecca’s and Isaac’s first meeting.

    That story has a luminescent quality to me. It glows with the fading sunlight of a field at the end of day. The scene seems to be filled with humor – Rebecca falling Read More >

  • August 30, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tavo
    by Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

    One of the sublime joys of studying at AJR is experiencing tefillah in its community – especially at Retreat. Being in a room with 70 or 80 people, each of whom is, in some way, expert at Jewish prayer, is wondrous. And with a leader who is seeking – through her choice of prayers, songs, and niggunim – to impress upon her congregants a particular insight or perspective on our liturgy, you have an experience that can meet the high expectations for kavanah, for the intentionality that our rabbis have set for us as our goal in communicating with the Holy One.

    I came to AJR with a very limited and narrow perspective on prayer. AJR broadened that perspective to my horizons, and then beyond them. It did so by fulfilling the words of Psalm 100: “Serve the Lord in gladness; come into His Read More >

  • July 5, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Pinhas 
    by Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11)

    Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence,
    Nor, given the way things go,
    Even of low cunning.
    Yet I have seen the wicked in great power,
    And spreading himself like a green bay tree.
    And the good as if they had never been;
    Their voices are blown away on the winter wind.

    Those familiar with the old Reform mahzor, Gates of Repentance, will recognize these lines from the poem Words for the Day of Atonement by Anthony Hecht. They remind us that, even if lacking in other virtues, survival itself is the necessary component and, in times of distress, a lofty enough goal.

    Mere survival is the underlying theme of this week’s parashah, Pinhas. The various threats to that survival that have arisen over time – Read More >

  • May 11, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Bahar-BeHukkotai 
    by Rabbi Bruce Alpert ’11

    We are surrounded by layers of reality. . .   There are swarms of ghosts, spirits, phantoms, souls, angels and devils. . .   The smallest pebble has a life of its own. . .   Everything is alive.  And everything is God or God’s intention. . .

    These lines are from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny & Alexander.  They are attributed to a pious Jew who seemingly magically saves two children from the clutches of their evil stepfather.  One of the children, the sensitive Alexander, has perceived this layered reality all along as his father’s ghost has become his companion in grief.

    I have never been much into mysticism.  My hesitancy is not so much based on rational skepticism but rather on my inability to understand mysticism’s subtlety and nuance.  But the juxtaposition of two verses in this week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bekhukotai, have led me to Read More >

  • May 11, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Bahar-BeHukkotai 
    by Rabbi Bruce Alpert ’11

    We are surrounded by layers of reality. . .   There are swarms of ghosts, spirits, phantoms, souls, angels and devils. . .   The smallest pebble has a life of its own. . .   Everything is alive.  And everything is God or God’s intention. . .

    These lines are from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny & Alexander.  They are attributed to a pious Jew who seemingly magically saves two children from the clutches of their evil stepfather.  One of the children, the sensitive Alexander, has perceived this layered reality all along as his father’s ghost has become his companion in grief.

    I have never been much into mysticism.  My hesitancy is not so much based on rational skepticism but rather on my inability to understand mysticism’s subtlety and nuance.  But the juxtaposition of two verses in this week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bekhukotai, have led me to Read More >

  • March 15, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra
    Rabbi Bruce Alpert, ’11

    Egg yolks, oil, water, flour, sugar and yeast.  For nearly twenty years I have been adding these ingredients to my bread machine on Friday morning.  When I return home in the afternoon, I have dough with which to braid and bake challah.

    The bakers among you may notice that I have left out an ingredient; by far the smallest of all.  Yet that one teaspoon of salt is the difference between a challah that tastes rich and sweet and one that is poor and flat.

    What got me thinking about challah and salt are the detailed descriptions of meal offerings and their preparation in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra.  I was struck particularly with this verse: “You shall season every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings Read More >

  • January 17, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert

    The exodus from Egypt is understood in different ways: as a miraculous deliverance, as an escape from slavery, as a journey to freedom. Reading again this week’s parashah, Bo, I came away with a different understanding: as a divorce.

    I took this understanding from the opening verse of Chapter 11: “The Lord said to Moses, “One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here,” k’shalkho kalah gareish y’gareish etkhem mi-zeh. What struck me about that final phrase was the juxtaposition of the words kalah and gareish. The former can mean bride and the latter, the verb meaning “cast out,” is the root for “divorce.” I initially read that last phrase to mean “like his sending out a bride, he shall certainly cast you out from here.” Rashi, citing Onkelos, tells us that Read More >

  • November 21, 2017


    Jacob and Laban: The Struggle between Past and Future
    A D’var Torah for Vayetzei
    by Rabbi Bruce Alpert

    People who join my Shabbat morning Torah study – particularly those who have never engaged in such study before – are often amazed to discover that they are free to form their own opinions about the Biblical text and the characters who inhabit it. Often, they use this new-found freedom to decide they don’t like our patriarch Jacob. His conditional acceptance of God at the beginning of this week’s parashah, along with his various deceptions and favoritisms, form their bill of particulars against the man.

    Opposed to this position stand the rabbis and their view of Jacob’s antagonist. “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean did to our father Jacob,” declares the Passover Haggadah. In its telling, Laban stands a step below Pharaoh in the Jewish annals of infamy.

    Strong opinions, then, exist on both Read More >

  • February 9, 2012

    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert

    As our world grows more secular, the questions I am asked about my faith grow more sophisticated. People used to ask me whether I believed in God. Given my choice of profession, the answer to that one strikes most as obvious. So now I am asked instead whether I believe in a personal God – a living, active God, if you will; one who not only creates, but who reveals and redeems as well.

    The gist of this question, as I hear it at least, seems to be as follows: “I understand why you would hold onto some vague, deistic notions out of a sense fidelity to your past or solidarity with your people. But given our knowledge of the vastness of the universe (or perhaps even multiverse), can you seriously believe that there can be a God who knows and cares about us as a species, let Read More >

  • May 12, 2011

    By Rabbi Bruce Alpert

    Here’s the scene: I open the door to the cupboard or refrigerator and stare intently at its contents. Perhaps I rearrange things a bit to discover what might be hiding in a remote corner. I stare some more. Then, after an additional moment or two of hesitation, I grab a handful of something I don’t really want and, disdainfully shutting the door, declare that “there’s nothing to eat in this house.”

    What brought this domestic idyll to mind were a pair of verses from this week’s parashah, Behar.The Torah is discussing the command to give the land a sabbatical. While allowing land to lie fallow is a cardinal agricultural principle, it does call for a certain amount of faith. The Torah addresses the issue directly: “Should you ask, ‘what are we to eat in the seventh year, Read More >

  • February 3, 2009

    Parashat B’shalah
    By Bruce Alpert

    Twenty-eight years ago – like today – the US watched a new administration come to power. Perhaps Ronald Reagan’s most controversial appointee was his designated Secretary of State, Alexander Haig who, as a retired general, was feared to have the same militaristic instincts as his new boss. During his confirmation hearing, he was questioned about the dangers of war in those unsettled times. “There are worse things; there are more important things,” he said. “This Republic was spawned by armed conflict . . . we fought and died to prevent dictatorship and genocide, in the Second World War, from becoming the rule of the land. There are things worth fighting for.”

    The sentiments that gave rise to General Haig’s comments are reflected in the opening verse of our Torah portion this week. There we are told that God did not lead the newly escaped Israelites by the Read More >

  • July 3, 2007

    By Bruce Alpert

    Our parashah this week begins in a curious place. The affair of Baal-Peor is related in Chapter 25 of Bemidbar – a brief 18 verses. Yet the story is broken in half by the division of the parashiot ‘ nine verses last week in Balak and the final nine in this week’s parashah, Pinhas. Certainly it would seem more logical to read this story in its entirety, within a single parashah.

    Pinhas, of course, is a problematic character ‘ one who has troubled us at least since Talmudic times. His rash act in killing Zimri and Cozbi seems to define religious zealotry at its very worst. Yet that act ends a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Israelites and, we learn this week, earns him and his family God’s eternal favor. How are we to reconcile our own natural abhorrence at Pinhas’s actions with all the good Read More >

  • September 8, 2006

    By Bruce Alpert

    A number of years ago, I was part of a synagogue committee that evaluated the then new, gender-neutral edition of the Reform movement’s Gates of Prayer. The new siddur offered revised versions of several of the older book’s Kabbalat Shabbat services. One change ‘ having nothing to do with gender issues ‘ occured on the first page of the first service. Where the older version read ‘May God bless us with Shabbat joy, May God bless us with Shabbat holiness, May God bless us with Shabbat peace,’ the new version read ‘May we be blessed with Shabbat joy, May we be blessed with Shabbat peace, May we be blessed with Shabbat light.’

    So focused was I on the siddur’s many other linguistic innovations that, at the time, I barely did more than note this change. Since then, however, I have come to think of Read More >


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