• August 14, 2023

    When I officiate at a wedding, I typically encourage the parents to bestow blessings upon their children. In addition to the Priestly Blessing, often the parents read a blessing in English that I provide to them, including the lines: “When you speak with your beloved, may you always know the joy of companionship. When you see each other, may your eyes be filled with wonder at the miracle of your love. When you disagree, may you always think of compromise.” I began to be curious about the etymology of the word “compromise,” noting that it has the word “promise” in it, and I wondered if it originally meant something like “promise together.”  I looked it up and discovered that the original meaning of the word “compromise” is a promise that is made by two disputants, at the same time, that they will abide by the decision of someone else who is acting as the arbiter of their dispute.

  • August 10, 2023

    It’s been said that one person’s religion is another person’s superstition. So when in this week’s parasha, Re’eh, the Israelites are told to build an altar on one of the Canaanite mountains upon their entrance into the Promised Land, but not before they are told to “utterly destroy” [Deut. 12.2] the altars that are already there, well—why am I not surprised? Both the Israelites and the Canaanites have a long relationship with mountains. And often they’re the same mountains! But the Canaanites were there first. Sacred ancient Israelite shrines were often conveniently located on the same hilltops as former (and sometimes destroyed) ancient Canaanite shrines. So, which religion is legit and which is simply superstition?

  • July 24, 2023

    This week’s Shabbat bears a special name, "Shabbat Nahamu” – the Shabbat of Comfort. Shabbat Nahamu comes on the heels of the saddest day on the Jewish calendar -- Tisha b’Av. This is the day on which both Temples were destroyed. Moreover, other catastrophes fell on this date – the day Bar Kokhba (the leader of the revolt against the Romans) was killed in 133 C.E., the day in 1290 when the Jews were expelled from England, the day in 1492 when the Jews were forced to convert or flee Spain. And, in 1914, the day on which World War I, and the horrors to follow, began. Tisha b’Av, the Rabbis say, is a day set aside for sorrows. And not only our national sorrows, but our personal ones as well. It makes you wonder why we don’t just curl up in a ball and stay under the covers every Tisha b’Av. But we don’t hide from our sadness; we re-live it. We sit on the ground, fast, recite Kinot (dirges) and read Eikha (Lamentations). We mourn. We embrace our sorrow. For it, too, is part of life.

  • July 17, 2023

    There’s a lot in our tradition that is difficult to accept.

    One of the concepts that seems especially not to square with our lived experience is the theology of Divine reward and punishment. It’s hard to reconcile for me, for many in the Jewish community, and for many of the students I work with. The haftarah that we’ll read on this Shabbat Hazon sums it up well:

    אִם־ תֹּאב֖וּ וּשְׁמַעְתֶּ֑ם ט֥וּב הָאָ֖רֶץ תֹּאכֵֽלוּ׃

    וְאִם ־תְּמָאֲנ֖וּ וּמְרִיתֶ֑ם חֶ֣רֶב תְּאֻכְּל֔וּ כִּ֛י פִּ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה דִּבֵּֽר

    If you are willing and obey, you will eat the best of the land.

    But if you refuse and disobey, you will be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of G-d spoke. (Isaiah 1:19-20)

    This is just not true. It’s hard to imagine, frankly, that it was ever true. But in the decades after the Holocaust, it seems especially impossible to believe. Worse, it’s offensive. Because the argument for it to be true would Read More >

  • July 10, 2023

    In this week’s parashah, Moses recounts the starting points of each of the places visited by the Israelites during their 40 year trek on the way to the Promised Land. “Moses recorded the starting points as directed by the Lord (al pi Adonai )”. (Num. 33:2) For what purpose is God’s command for Moses to catalogue each station encountered as the journey nears completion and why davka by their starting points?

    Moses has been intimately involved in the entire journey, especially from the moment the Israelites broke camp on the 20th day of the 2nd year. (Num. 10:11) It’s not as if he needs to record the stations to remember the journey. All the treks from that point on were conducted in an intimate partnership between Moses and the Divine: “On a sign from the Lord (al pi Adonai) they made camp and on a sign from the Read More >

  • July 6, 2023

    The way we respond to very difficult stories in the Torah can teach us a lot about the complexities of being human. Two common reactions to the stories that shock us, maybe even disgust us, might be to reject the whole Torah and its jealous and angry God or to simply not pay attention to the parts of the Torah we don’t like and only learn from its ethical teachings and uplifting stories.

    I would like to suggest a third approach, one that begins with seeing the Torah as the beginning of a conversation and not as the end of one. This means not only acknowledging the compassionate and loving side of being human but our more shadowy characteristics as well, such as the desire to murder, rid ourselves of people who we see as harmful to us, and obsessive sexual desires. Just as these are all in the Torah as well as inside each of us, I believe the Read More >

  • June 26, 2023

    I delight in the robins, cardinals, and other common birds that I regularly see and hear in my yard, and their presence brings me joy. But recently, thanks to the wonders of technology in the form of the Merlin app produced by Cornell University, my ears, mind, and heart have been opened to the knowledge that there are many other, less common and well-known birds, right here in my own backyard. Through the ability of this app to inform me of the birds around me by recording their songs, I have discovered that rose-breasted grosbeaks, warbling vireos, chimney swifts, and cedar waxwings are prone to visiting my neighborhood. Who knew! What a wonder! The joy, uplift, delight, and hope that awareness of these mostly unseen birds bring me is deep and unbounded. They make my day.

    Balak, King of Moab, sends Bilam to curse the Israelites. Along the way, Read More >

  • June 19, 2023

    Way back in 2017 — which feels like a lifetime ago! — my synagogue started an initiative that we called “Have a Drink with a Political Opponent.”

    The concept was simple. We set up a simple online questionnaire which asked questions like: how do you identify yourself politically; what’s the political affiliation of someone you would like to have a calm, rational conversation with; what are some issues of special interest and some issues you don’t want to discuss; do you prefer wine, beer, or coffee. The program organizer then matched people up, and the synagogue offered to cover the cost of the drinks.

    We made it clear that this program was for dialogue, not debate: the goal was not to change anyone’s mind, but to better understand others and to have one’s own perspective understood by others.

    We created this program after hearing from many people in our community that they could not imagine how anyone Read More >

  • June 13, 2023

    God is out of patience, ready to give up on the grumbling Israelites. God and Moshe have attempted to transform a group of homeless, freed slaves into a nation, while the people have struggled with dissension, lack of faith and understandable fears about their future. They complain, rebel and grumble. (The Book of Numbers might also be called the Book of Grumblers!)

    In this week’s parasha, this “generation of the wilderness,”dor ha-midbar, has committed the second of its most egregious acts of rebellion. Earlier, they built and worshipped a golden calf. In Shelah lekha, twelve scouts, a leader from each tribe, report on their mission to check out the promised land. They all agree that the land is fertile and desirable, but ten of the twelve recommend against going forward, stirring fear and doubt and demoralizing the people. The Israelites declare, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we might die in Read More >

  • June 6, 2023

    In my spiritual journey I have come across a difficulty that in Buddhist thought is taught to be the cause of much of our suffering. This is the phenomenon of craving. The human characteristic of craving is often confused with desire. Distinguishing between healthy desire and craving / unhealthy desire takes both thoughtful self-reflection into the source of desire and the consequences of acting on our desires. Craving originates in our fears, from trauma, loneliness and doubt. Healthy desires emanate from gratitude, love, compassion and the joy of connecting to our deepest selves, each other and the world.

    We see the results of craving in how the lust for wealth, sex, food or alcohol have ruinous results for ourselves, our relationships and our planet. We also see how healthy desire manifests itself in acts of kindness, artistic creations, and in those who teach and share their knowledge, interests, and wonder of the world with others.

    In Parashat Beha’alotekha, a group of Read More >

  • May 30, 2023

    There’s a cartoon I once saw where a guru in a loincloth sits cross-legged at the top of a mountain. Before him is a matronly-looking woman in Western clothes who has climbed almost to the summit. The caption: “Murray, darling, when are you coming home?”

    Many of us have the idea that a life of holiness means a life of privation. What does Judaism have to say about this?

    In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nasso, we read about the nazir. This is a man or woman who “explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set themselves apart for G-d.” (Num. 6:2)

    Having made this vow, the nazir takes on three restrictions:

    1. No wine or strong drink,
    2. No haircuts, and
    3. Not being near someone who has died.

    Three people in Tanakh seem to have fit the description of a nazir:

    – Samson, whose mother was told by an angel: “You are going to conceive and bear a son; let no razor touch his Read More >

  • May 24, 2023

    Forty is the number of transformation in the Torah. And there are even too many examples to list! It rained for 40 days and 40 nights to transform the antediluvian world to our post-flood world. The 12 spies scouted the Land for 40 days and then the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years – to transform the people once bound by a slavery mindset to a people who could operate with a freedom mindset. Moses and G-d had a 40-day and 40-night havruta on top of Mount Sinai – to transform the Jewish people from pre-Torah to having received the Torah. Indeed, from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Yom Kippur is a 40-day period, marking our annual journeys with our own process of heshbon hanefesh and teshuvah.

    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his book Waters of Eden, delved into the meaning of mikvah and the significances of the number 40. The mikvah is the paradigmatic Jewish ritual of Read More >

  • May 16, 2023

    “The straight line belongs to men, the curved one to God”

                     ~ Antoni Gaudi, architect

    In case we missed it, we begin this book of the Torah with a reminder: we’re BaMidbar—in the desert.


    But why? What are the Israelites still doing in the desert? After one year and one month, couldn’t they make it through the desert any faster? It really shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to get from Egypt to Israel, even you are traveling on foot with hundreds of thousands of people and a lot of livestock.

    But not to worry; at the beginning of Parashat BeMidbar, we seem to be at an inflection point. The Israelites must surely be thinking that their travels are coming to an end. As they ceremoniously take stock of the able-bodied men from among their tribes who will form an army to battle any peoples who might try to stop them ( Read More >

  • May 8, 2023

    The second of this week’s parashiyot, Behukotai, lists the various blessings in store for those who observe all of God’s commandments and enumerates the multitude of curses awaiting those who ignore or disobey. While the underlying theology, that our actions are the immediate catalyst for the good and bad we see in the world, may not resonate for some of us, I would like to focus on a different dimension of the correlation between our actions and a divine response.

    “And if these things fail to discipline you for Me, and you remain hostile to Me, I too will remain hostile to you…” (Lev. 26:23-24).

    God’s response to human hostility (קֶרִי) is divine hostility (קֶרִי). The quoted passage suggests, in rabbinic parlance, מידה כנגד מידה, “a measure for measure” response. The sense of commensurateness between deed, on the one hand, and reward or punishment, on the other, undergirds many Read More >

  • August 12, 2021


  • August 12, 2021


  • August 12, 2021


  • December 17, 2009

    By Rabbi Eric Hoffman

    In preparing for this D’var Torah I read back into the archives of AJR Divrei Torah on the sedra, initially to avoid repeating themes and references already shared on these pages. Instead, I discovered a treasure of thinking that deserved to be repeated, not avoided. Last year, 5769, Hayley Siegel showed how the tortuous encounters between Joseph and his brothers led to the establishment of trust between them based upon the brothers’ confessions of truth. In 5768, Sanford Olshansky demonstrated the development of Joseph’s character in accordance with the theory of Mishnah Avot 5:21 as a factor in his reconciliation with his brothers. In 5767, Irwin Huberman drew lessons of conservation and the redirection of surplus to help the poor in our midst from Joseph’s master plan for Egypt. In 5766, Michael Rothbaum characterized Chanukah as the Rabbis’ rewriting Read More >


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