Everyone has their moments of failure, when they transgress.
The mind of the midrashist drifts effortlessly over the face of the Tanakh as verses from the Torah conjure up similar verses and phrases from other sacred books. Thus, our parasha’s descriptions of the thanksgiving offerings and the free-will offerings call to mind a phrase found in Psalm 50: “The one who sacrifices a thanksgiving offering honors me.”
With his brother Benjamin’s fate hanging in the balance, Yehuda “draws close” to the Egyptian viceroy (whose true identity is not yet known). Yehuda had sworn to his father he would return Benjamin safely to Canaan, but now Benjamin is facing confinement and servitude in Egypt.
The American Modern Orthodox community has just entered uncharted territory. Last week, our largest rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) formally withdrew its support of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality).
The words of the priestly blessing are among the most resonant and familiar to us in all of Jewish tradition. Whether they are being pronounced by the kohanim themselves in synagogue, or invoked at the Friday-night table, or at a baby naming or wedding, they generate as much emotion as any string of 15 words anywhere in our tradition.
Many of us are familiar with the rabbinic image in which God lifts Mount Sinai above the heads of the Israelites, threatening them with death if they refuse the Torah. Less familiar but no less prevalent in rabbinic literature is a strikingly different take on this scene.
Nature abhors a vacuum. And so do biblical stories.
One of the talents of our sages was their ability to simultaneously hold the text of the entire Torah in their minds. When they saw an unusual word or phrase in one week’s parasha, other appearances of that word or phrase, from elsewhere in the Torah, popped into their minds instantly. And the resultant swirl of contexts and usages ignited the great creative interpretive endeavor.
Back in grade school, the story of Yehuda and Tamar was always deemed too racy to teach. Our teacher skipped that one episode, and looking back it’s difficult to argue against the omission. Can you imagine explaining to elementary school students what a harlot is?
Why shoo away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks? The Torah doesn’t say why we are commanded to do this. There is a major school of Jewish thought that regards this omission as being quite deliberate. This is the school that produced the Mishnah’s teaching prohibiting a person from praying, “God, have mercy upon me just as You have mercy upon the bird in its nest.” This school presumes that God’s laws have no known rationale, and that we observe them simply in order to do His will. It argues that it is pretentious of us to assume that God is having mercy upon the mother bird, and by extension that feelings of compassion when performing this (or any) mitzvah would be misplaced.
Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32) Was Noah someone who would have been recognized as a tzadik in any generation? Or was Noah only a tzadik in a relative sense, only in comparison to those around him?
Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) Both the story of Bilaam and Targum Jonathan instruct us to see beyond the grand, deep, transformative moments of speech, and realize that each and every time we speak, we are taking advantage of a Divine gift.
Right there, in the shadow of the ever-popular "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," another mitzvah quietly sits: "Thou shall surely rebuke thy friend." And while this may seem rude or intrusive, the Torah regards the obligation of mutual rebuke as the engine of communal righteousness.
Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)
Were contributions toward the building of the Tabernacle voluntary or compulsory? Those of us who have stood before our communities during a building campaign have always tended to favor the latter option, as this makes for a more effective appeal. But the classical commentaries on the Torah -- presumably more objective in their approach to the question -- are rather evenly divided on it.
The story, of course, turns out to be one of reconciliation and not hostility. But the overarching lesson of the story is the one that played out in Jacob's mind and soul. The way up in life is to firmly commit ourselves to a self-identity of spiritual and moral excellence, and then to demand that we actually live the self-image we have created. It is true that our past errors will become magnified as a result, and our conscience will not remain silent. But this too is part of the way up.
It's not that I would want to see Jerusalem divided. It's rather that the time has come for honesty. Their call to handcuff the government of Israel in this way, their call to deprive it of this negotiating option, reveals that these organizations are not being honest about the situation that we are in, and how it came about. And I cannot support them in this.
We plead for life, yet the Talmud teaches there are three circumstances under which we must be willing to give up our lives.
I was in Jerusalem in early July when a news story about Sudanese refuges demonstrating in front of the Knesset caught my eye.
Moshe was one of a kind. "None ever rose again like Moshe." At the same time, in very powerful ways, Moshe and Miriam were two of a kind. Their personalities and passions overlapped generously. And despite being separated over decades during Moshe's extended sojourn in Midian, their destinies and their souls remained intertwined. When one of them left this world, the other descended into grief-stricken crisis.
Animal sacrifices are rather messy, and most of us would have a hard time imagining ourselves offering them up upon a Temple altar.
The episode of the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, presents so many difficult questions. One of the most basic is: For whom is this human and Divine drama staged?
Jewish community. With courage and vision, we need to act on this opportunity by understanding the important changes that have occurred over the last decades and rethinking the way we engage the broader Jewish community.
A group of prominent rabbis has called upon Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate Jews from Gaza. If the Gaza disengagement plan goes through the Knesset, many soldiers will face a bewildering dilemma, as they must choose between the orders of their commanding officers and the orders of their religious authorities.
What did Moshe want? When it all came down to it, after Moshe accepted that he wouldn't be leading Israel into the land, what did he request of God? Not surprisingly, he asked nothing for himself, focusing instead on the people who would need to go on without him. As we read this week, "Lord of the spirit of all flesh, appoint, I pray thee, a man to lead the congregation who will go out before them and who will come in before them, who will lead them out and who will bring them in."
In a parsha that features spectacular displays of sound and light, the most dramatic moment is actually the quietest one. In fact, it sometimes feels like the opening chapter's tumult and noise only serves to draw us even deeper into the second chapter's thunderclap of silence.
In the parsha four weeks ago, Shimon and Levi, sons of Jacob, got the last word. But on his deathbed in this week's parsha, Jacob has one final opportunity to deliver his rejoinder.
The Shabbat of teshuva (repentance) has a special quality among the other 10 days of Teshuva. The Shabbat of Teshuva is obviously a more focused day than, say, the Tuesday of Teshuva, yet it's not nearly as high-pressure as Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur are.
When thinking about the fiasco of the Israelite spying venture into the Land of Canaan, we often focus on the question "How did it go so wrong?"
Want to be a partner in redemption? Then don't overlook a surprising message in this week's parsha.
The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana always strikesme as odd. For starters, the section focuses primarily on Hagar and Ishmael,characters that are ultimately marginal in Jewish historical terms. On topof that, the story that the section deals with is arguably the leastflattering episode in the lives of our forefather and foremother, Abrahamand Sara. It is the story of their expelling Hagar and Ishmael from theirhome to face a highly uncertain future in the wilderness. Why did our sagesselect this story to be read on this day?
So what are you worth? Does it depend on how the market did today?
Unworthiness is not a quality that carries positive connotations. It's usually thought of as a state to be overcome, or a situation to be avoided. Perhaps, though, it has a redeeming feature. Perhaps feelings of unworthiness should actually be reveled in and appreciated -- at least sometimes.
A parable from the Midrash: Once, a sighted person and a blind person were walking along the way. Said the sighted person to his fellow traveler, "Come and grab my arm."
A bush that is on fire but doesn't burn is indeed a mysterious phenomenon. But arguably, there is a far more mysterious element in the story of God's commanding Moshe to go down to Egypt to the palace of Pharaoh.
These are the weeks that we read of our heroes. The book of Genesis tells the stories of the faith and tenacity of the fathers and mothers of our nation for whom every day was another stride in the uncharted waters of living in covenant with God. It was their passionate determination to keep the vision of a righteous and holy people alive that ultimately produced the Jewish people. But it wasn't always easy.
So have you heard the one about the two rabbis on a boat? It's actually a story told by the Talmud in its discussion of the laws of the sukkah. It seems that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Gamliel were on a boat during the days leading up to the holiday of Sukkot, and it became clear that they were not going to make it to land in time for the beginning of the festival. Rabbi Akiva sprung into action, pressing the members of the crew for a bit of lumber, some nails, and whatever other materials might be employed, to assemble a sukkah just large enough for himself and for his colleague.
Some of the Torah's laws are difficult to comply with. Others are easier. One that certainly belongs in the latter category is the law that prohibits us from engaging in child sacrifice.
Can you name the sons of Moses? You're probably in good company if you can't. The fact of the matter is that other than their names, the Torah tells us virtually nothing about them. Their deeds and destiny are unknown.
Let's face it. We love the feeling of power. We love it at work, we love it at shul, we even love it at home.
Rabbi Safra roasted the meat. Raba salted the fish.
According to the Talmud, this is what these two great sages did every Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbat. The Talmud regards this information as noteworthy because, although both sages certainly had others in their households who could have done this work, they insisted on doing it themselves. "It is greater to do the mitzvah with one's own hands than to delegate it to others" was the motto by which Rabbi Safra and Raba lived. And they apparently applied this motto without discrimination. It pertained to messy or smelly mitzvot just as it did to mitzvot that did not get one's hands and clothing dirty. A mitzvah is a mitzvah.
There's a wonderful implicit message in the fact that we always begin the annual Torah reading cycle just after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "It is time to begin again," the reading cycle tells us. "And the way to start is by putting the elements of our lives into their proper order."
"Once a person has died, what difference would it make to him if someone else were to live in his house, or harvest his grapes, or even marry his betrothed?"
On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions.
As a fitting lead-up to the Fourth, we present in this week's parasha the son of Yitzhar, Korach -- the tireless biblical fighter against the tyranny of arbitrary and oppressive government, the champion of God-given individual freedom, the Thomas Paine of his day.
Here's a riddle: What do leprosy and the State of Israel have in common? Hopefully, nothing leaps to your mind right away. I, however, needed to solve this riddle before I could begin to write this week's parasha column: For the week that we celebrate Israel's founding also happens to be the week that we read the Torah portion concerning lepers.
Context is everything. Certainly, this must besaid concerning the curious opening of this week's Torah portion. Forthe portion opens with a command that has been issued many timesbefore: the command to observe the seventh day as a day of rest.
Deeply ingrained ideas die hard. This week's parasha,however, helps to ring the death knell for one such idea. Many of us have been trained to believe that the Torah's commandments can be broken down into two basic categories.