• September 11, 2020
    Tomorrow’s Giants On Our Shoulders
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilekh
    By Rabbi David Markus

    We stand on the shoulders of giants. Much that we have, much that we are becoming, are harvests of trees our ancestors planted. We inherit their shalshelet – their spiritual and practical causation both wise and unwise, healthy and not – along with what they received from their ancestry. Legacy courses through us as history’s heartbeat. We and how we live our lives are the next beat, the eternal river’s next bend on its endless flow.

    So of course, we stand on yesterday’s shoulders. But how about tomorrow’s giants on our shoulders? If we really felt the future on our shoulders, would we live differently?

    Torah’s Nitzavim-Vayeilekh asks that question directly. The Covenant is made with “everyone standing here today,” and also “everyone not standing here today” (Deut. 29:13-14). “Everyone not standing here today” are future generations Read More >

  • July 24, 2020

    Into and Through Tisha b’Av: Our Fragile Alchemy of “Why”
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim
    By Rabbi David Markus

    There’s gotta be a reason. What’s happening now must be a reaction to something that came before. Someone must be responsible: maybe me, maybe you, maybe all of us. Any God that is good and fair must have some purpose in all this – right?

    We sense this yearning for “why” just under the surface. After all, there’s lots to explain, and mere natural explanations don’t always suffice. That’s why so many people, of all faiths, might seek and see divine purpose in most everything from covid to tornadoes.

    The human psyche – that sacred alchemy of supernal light and stardust – naturally seeks explanation for life’s twists and turns. For every fairness or unfairness, victory or defeat, comfort or suffering, we’re wired to connect the dots of causation with some coherence. If we’re Read More >

  • June 4, 2020

    When It Really Is About The Patriarchy
    A D’var Torah for Parshat Naso
    By Rabbi David Markus

    Dedicated to the family of George Floyd, and peaceful change makers everywhere.

    I open this week’s Torah portion (Naso), and I cringe. I read of ancient ways to serve in the Mishkan – all tribal men of a certain age. I read of Sotah trials, humiliating women to placate jealous husbands. Even the Threefold Blessing, phrased free of gender, was harnessed to aim first at Kohanim – only men (B.T. Hullin 49a, Rashi Num. 6:27).

    Thankfully we’ve become adept at redeeming Torah from patriarchy. Some see Torah as socially developmental, meeting our ancestors only just a bit ahead of their Bronze Age context so that Torah would be practical. We might note that Torah itself responded to the Sotah trial by restoring an innocent Sotah woman’s power: a false-accuser husband never could divorce her (Deut. Read More >

  • April 17, 2020

    “Silent” Tribute to the Dead of Covid-19
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemini
    By Rabbi David Markus

    Spiritually speaking, what should we say amidst 120,000 covid-19 deaths? Surely there must be something we should say, some right response – right?

    If these questions land a gut punch, if they rouse gnawing emptiness, if they jumble emotions and singe the soul, then we might just barely begin to imagine Aaron in this week’s paresha (Shemini). How could the High Priest of Israel lose his sons Nadav and Avihu to divine fire, and then respond with silence – vayidom Aharon (Leviticus 10:3)?

    This timely question, about one of Torah’s most difficult texts, touches our core both as individuals and as spiritual leaders – especially now.

    But let’s be clear: our question’s covid-19 context isn’t so unusual in a global sense. According to the United Nations, over 165,000 people die every day from all causes (e.g. age, illnesses both Read More >

  • February 28, 2020
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Terumah
    By Rabbi David Markus

    Sometimes it’s what Torah doesn’t say. Listen to Torah’s silence and she might reveal whole new worlds just waiting for you to hear them into being.

    With this week’s Parashat Terumah, Torah begins describing how Moses, Betzalel and their team will build the Mishkan. Chapter after detailed chapter, Torah specifies the metals, fabrics, dimensions, shapes, colors and vessels of the Indwelling Place in which our wandering ancestors would channel and receive the sacred. Torah’s architectural design and building instructions were explicit, nuanced and exacting…

    … except for the two kruvim adorning the Holy of Holies. It’s easy, God says: just pop ’em on top.

    “Make two kruvim of gold, make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the cover. Make one kruv on one end, and one kruv on the other end…. The kruvim will stretch their wings above, covering the [Ark’s] cover with their wings, and each face will front Read More >

  • January 10, 2020

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayehi
    By Rabbi David Markus

    This last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis (Vayeḥi) concludes the drama of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. The dramatic saga – their troubled family dynamics, power and power inversions, regret, guilt, fear, their very lives – it all finally reaches a settled tableau. Jacob is buried, hatchets are buried (maybe), and Joseph’s body is embalmed. With them, Torah’s first era of Jewish ancestry ends.

    Of course, their deaths are Torah’s fertilizer for the future. Reflecting God’s promise to Abraham long before (Gen. 15:13), by design all of this week’s endings are mere prelude. The next chapter soon will open by recounting those generations (Ex. 1:1-6), and a new king of Egypt will rise to life who knows not Joseph (Ex. 1:8). Centuries of bondage will commingle death and life until only supernatural deaths – the Tenth Plague and Read More >

  • November 21, 2019
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Hayei Sarah
    By Rabbi David Markus

    I stopped counting how often I hear, “God loves me: I got a great parking spot.” Even some clergy, spiritual directors and theologians have a soft spot for the Angel of Miraculous Parking. I too admit to invoking Hanayat-El (from hanayah / ”parking”) under my breath.

    Perhaps it’s a cute half-joke – seemingly easy and low stakes, gently cutting down to size the vast uncontrollability of modern life. And as spiritual thinkers of integrity and rigor, let’s be candid about the many theological dilemmas of Hanayat-El: Why do bad parking spots happen to good people? Isn’t God close to the broken-hearted driver on a hurried errand? Does God do parking but not highway traffic or airport delays? Vanity of vanities: all parking is vanity!

    But Hanayat-El is no joke. Angel of Miraculous Parking or not, intercessory prayer – asking God for specifics – is a Read More >

  • October 3, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeilekh
    By Rabbi David Markus

    Rosh Hashanah brings a spiritual lag between the year’s reboot and Torah’s reboot, like our northern latitude’s seasonal lag between sun angle and temperature. This spiritual lag raises two questions. First, shouldn’t Rosh Hashanah, which recalls the Yom Harat Olam (Creation’s birthday) of Genesis 1, therefore also be Simhat Torah to reboot the Torah cycle at the same time? Second, precisely because Simhat Torah lags behind by over three weeks, what spiritual meaning to make of this lag and this week’s Torah portion (Vayeilekh) that begins to fill it?

    Talmud’s explanation for the lag is that Rosh Hashanah should follow only after we read Torah’s “curses” of consequence for disobedience (Megillah 31b). That’s Deuteronomic theology in a nutshell: spiritually speaking, we get what we deserve and we deserve what we get.

    To me, Talmud’s premise doesn’t hold. Even if we accept Read More >

  • August 16, 2019


    A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’ethanan
    By Rabbi David Markus

    It’s fitting that the “Jewish greatest hits” of Parashat Va’ethanan come immediately after Tisha b’Av.

    After our spiritual calendar’s lowest day, Torah promises that anyone who seeks God with whole heart and soul will find God exactly where we are – even in exile (Deut. 4:27-29). We stand again to hear the sacred utterances we call the Ten Commandments, recalling that together we stood at Sinai (Deut. 5:6-18). We receive the Shema of unity and the V’ahavta of a love that far transcends place – both “dwelling in [our] home and walking on [our] way” (Deut. 6:4-9).

    Notice how the three Va’ethanan dimensions of content, place and time commingle spiritually.

    The content is core Jewish theology. It’s our full-hearted search for God amidst a promise of real sacred encounter. (Heschel’s God in Search of Man, anyone?) It’s God pouring Self into Read More >

  • June 21, 2019

    Lighting Us Up: Theology, Pluralism and Becoming the Menorah
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Beha’alotekha
    By Rabbi David Markus

    What does God need of our spirituality, what do we need of it, and how do we know? These questions cast long theological shadows across sacred tradition, and efforts at clarity often generate more heat than light.

    It’s with those questions in mind that I read of Parashat Beha’alotekha’s seven-branch gold menorah, symbol of Jewish peoplehood and the modern State of Israel.

    Why seven branches? The parashah doesn’t say. God just tells Moses to instruct Aaron: “In your lifting the lamps (beha’alotekha et ha-neirot) to light, let seven lamps shine at the front of the menorah” (Numbers 8:2). The fact of the menorah’s “seven” is assumed.

    Torah continues that the menorah should look as previously described – alluding to the design God showed Moses at Sinai (Exodus 25:40). There too, however, Torah doesn’t say why seven Read More >

  • May 1, 2019
    Yom Kippur Asks “Answers” – Not Just “Afflictions”
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Acharei Mot
    By Rabbi David Markus

    This week’s parashah (Acharei Mot) brings Torah’s first mention of Yom Kippur (#sorry), so each year this parashah starts me thinking about the High Holy Days (#notsorry).

    Each year, I recall how three words in this parashah once drove me from Judaism. So each year, I renew my commitment to wrestle these words that challenge me.

    This parashah’s three challenging words are: “afflict your souls.”

    Torah “sets a law for all time that [on Yom Kippur] you will afflict your souls (t’anu et nafshoteikhem) and do no work” (Lev. 16:29). That day is to be a “complete shabbat (shabbat shabbaton) [on which] you will afflict your souls (v’initem et nafshoteikhem)” (Lev. 16:31). For Yom Kippur, one mention of “afflict” didn’t suffice: Torah had to say it twice.

    From “afflict your souls” evolved Yom Kippur’s fasting, Read More >

  • January 18, 2019

    A D’car Torah for Parashat Beshallah
    By Rabbi David Evan Markus

    It’s an occupational hazard. We clergy so delight in bringing Torah to life and liturgy to life that we might unashamedly “geek out” – especially when we do both at the same time. When I link Torah with liturgy in ways that enliven both, my joy can be irrepressible. (Thankfully my New York congregation seems to like it, and my closest friends at least grudgingly tolerate it.)

    This week’s portion (Beshallah) and its Song of the Sea seem ready-made for this Torah-liturgy two-fer of joy.

    Morning and evening, traditional liturgy after the Shema brings us to the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14). We reach the shore of entrapping finitude and then, with holy help, we’re invited to see the impossible into being. By suspending disbelief and experiencing the miracle, we can go free again and again. This journey from bondage to freedom is the journey Read More >

  • November 29, 2018

    Keeping the Mind in Mind: The Essence of Pluralism
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeishev
    By Rabbi David Evan Markus

    Exciting news: studying theology can teach us how to think and even build secular careers! Whatever one’s beliefs, immersion in the complexities of sacred text can expand perspective and cultivate character. Studying theology can make the mind nimbler, the heart more tender and the spirit wiser.

    But for all of theology’s great promise, theology doesn’t promise certitude. The call to cultivate mind, heart and spirit isn’t about fixity or certainty, but rather something far more important.

    Exhibit A: Jacob’s response to Joseph’s dreams in Parshat Vayeishev.

    Joseph recounts his dream of 11 stars, sun, and moon bowing to him. Jacob responds with pique (“are parents to worship their child?”) and Joseph’s 11 brothers seethe with jealousy (Gen. 37:10-11a). The encounter ends with Torah narrating that Jacob shamar et ha-davar: he “kept the matter [in Read More >

  • October 4, 2018

    Genesis (En)gendered: An Angelic View from Eden’s Way
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Bereshit
    by Rabbi David Markus

    This momentous #metoo #ibelieveyou moment urges us to see old stories with new eyes. Reading sacred texts with ever renewing eyes is one of many ways that theology teaches us how to see and think – to reach beyond ourselves, to not become calcified and thus brittle, to strengthen our capacity to hold multiplicity and nuance without falling into hopeless relativism or nihilism.

    Let’s start at the very beginning (“a very good place to start“). What might this moment of societal gender and sexual reckoning mean for how we read Torah’s sacred story of Creation, ostensibly the most familiar narrative in the Jewish canon?

    That we can ask this question about Torah’s most familiar narrative itself says something important – and something hopeful – about the theological project of renewing our eyes and expanding what we see and how we see.  ( Read More >

Rabbi David Evan Markus

Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.