My daughter, a soon-to-graduate high school senior, was chosen by a teacher to participate in an event to teach the school a lesson about drunk driving. Before school one day, organizers would set up a scene with a crashed car and police tape. My daughter and the other chosen participants would gather in a room instead of attending first period, making them appear to be missing. It would then be announced that they had been killed in the crash.
The imagination is a stretch of highway that bends through the universe. Its lanes unmarked, its exits limitless, yet it is, nevertheless, the shortest road to anywhere.
In the late ’70s, I carried a beeper when it was my turn to be on call for a rape-victim helpline. One evening I had it clipped to my jacket during a faculty meeting at the community college where I taught.
The book of Bamidbar, literally “in the desert” or “in the wilderness,” is a hard book to read. Over and over, plagues break out and thousands are killed. The reason, we are told, is a pronounced lack of faith in God. I found the repeated spilling of Israelite blood difficult, to say the least, until Bible scholar Adriane Leveen put it into mythic perspective for me.
Life is not easy. In fact, at times it’s downright infuriating. Our natural tendency is to want to blame someone, and the easiest target is God. We may carry anger at HaShem for our entire lives. As a result, we miss out on decades of spiritual connectedness and comfort.
Most people try really hard to avoid having their bar or bat mitzvah on the Shabbat when we read Tazria-Metzora. I know this not only because I am a rabbi, but because this was my bat mitzvah portion.
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.”
Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group, so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the requisite 10 men.
The ancient sages teach us that the Torah is exceedingly careful with language. No phrase is superfluous. Each word or letter is part of the intricate unfolding mysteries concentrated in the Torah.
What’s up with God?
We are taught from a young age not to “judge a book by its cover” and we raise our children to look deeper than just at the clothes someone is wearing.
You shall make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration from the hospital room of my 92-year-old friend Harriet. She was having an EKG during it, even though we all agreed the numbers would not provide an accurate assessment of her condition — her medical condition, that is.
Sometime during the 13th century, in a private study in Barcelona, an anonymous author sat and composed “Sefer HaChinuch” (“The Book of Education”). This systematic study of the Torah’s 613 commandments was beautifully written as a gift from a father to his son. In his introduction, the author lovingly states that he wrote this book “to inspire the heart of my boy, my son, with an accounting of the mitzvot.”
This week’s parasha is one of the most central to the Jewish narrative. We read of the final plagues, the storm brought by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm gathering on the border of Egypt, the Divine command to prepare for the Exodus by baking the matzot and eating the bitter herbs. It is the essence of the Passover story. Our greatest glory — Divine liberation — emanated from the nadir of our enslavement.
There is an old midrash to explain how Moshe discovered his Jewish identity and woke up to his calling as a teacher and prophet. Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, used to sing him lullabies and feed him familiar foods.
This week we begin a new book of Torah — Shemot in Hebrew and Exodus in English. While the word “exodus” means “going out,” the word “shemot” means “names.” So, it should not be surprising that we are sent through a maze of names and journeys in this week’s parasha.
We approached the entrance to the Kotel Plaza a little before 7 a.m. on Rosh Hodesh Tevet. In my bag was my tallit, the beautiful purple-and-blue one that was hand woven as a gift from the students and faculty at USC more than 20 years ago, when I completed my time there as the Hillel rabbi.
In our age of Facebook and Twitter, we know all too well how fast words can spread. When I was a kid, we played the game telephone, passing a word or phrase around the circle by whispering it into each other’s ear, knowing that by the time it went all the way around, it would probably be transformed into something completely different — that was funny!
In this week’s parasha, Yaakov flees for his life, departing from Beersheva back to Charan — back to the beginning. How optimistic it had been when Avraham came to Israel two generations earlier, abandoning Charan presumably forever (Genesis 11:32-12:6). Avraham “went, took and passed.” He was journeying to a grand destiny on blessed land, where God promised he would become a great nation, blessed with wealth, with a name made great and famous.
The existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Often the same is true of Torah. Sometimes in order to understand what is happening now, you have to know what has happened before.
The best parts of the Noah story are not found in the Torah verses, but in the stories we weave between them. Classical midrashim and the movie “Evan Almighty” help us answer such questions as: How did all those animals get along on the ark, and who cleaned up after them? How did Noah build such a humongous vessel all by himself?
Readers long have been challenged by the blatant contradictions between the first two chapters of Genesis. In chapter 1, the creation of animals precedes people; in chapter 2, the order is reversed. In chapter 1, a single, androgynous Adam came into being; in chapter 2, Adam and Eve.
If each spoken word is a droplet of water, then each voice that utters is a wind that brings forth rain. Though, the wind has no shape. Though, water comes in all shapes and sizes. Though, no mortal power can divine the weather even a few days hence, and words turn patterns as surely as the wind turns seasons about the globe.
Aware that he is about to die, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor in front of all the people. In a few short verses, he leads us on a journey through a plethora of emotions. Moses lets the people know that God is already aware of the many sins they will commit, but he is also aware that they will eventually arrive, succeed and triumph in Israel.
“The Torah that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven ... it is something that is very close to you” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13).
Earlier today I bit into a crisp, bright green plum. The plum, a new variety at my local farmers’ market, showed up for the first time this week. It is hard to believe
Dear Mom: It's been a long time coming, but I owe you an apology. There have been simply too many jokes at your expense, like the time you told your friends I was such a devoted son that I spend $150 on you every week — talking to my therapist.
“Beware of being lured into their ways ... Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow the same practices!’” (Deuteronomy 12:30).
Consider the artichoke for a moment. It is an odd but instructive vegetable. An artichoke is prickly and surrounded by an armor of leaves protecting the soft center, the heart of the food. Boiling or steaming it loosens the protective leaves, permitting you to pick them off one by one, unwrapping the delicious gift that lies inside.
Moses is 120 years old when, in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, he recalls his recent request of God: “I pleaded with the Eternal at that time, saying, ‘O Eternal God, You who let your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon’ ” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).
A man visiting from Manhattan introduced himself after finishing a Shabbat afternoon class in Jewish ethics and told me the following story: In the early years of Lincoln Square Synagogue, when Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was the rabbi, he always wanted a certain leading member to serve as cantor for Neilah on Yom Kippur.
This double parasha brings us to the end of the book of Bemidbar. The Israelites stand at the edge of the Promised Land, following Moses' last military campaign. Before the people can leave the wilderness, the soldiers must go through rituals of purification. They must stay "outside the camp for seven days." Everyone who has "slain a person or touched a corpse shall purify himself" (Numbers 31:19). This care for returning soldiers has relevance for today's veterans.
Popularized by Harry Belafonte in one generation and by the Grateful Dead in another, the song “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” comes to mind for me as we read Parashat Pinchas, which contains the transformative and important story of the daughters of Zelophechad.
The dilemma faced by families in today’s health care environment when it comes to making end-of-life decisions is captured vividly in a June 24 article in St. Louis, Mo.’s daily online newspaper, STLToday.com.
This week’s portion bears one of the Torah’s great enigmas. What exactly did Moshe Rabbeinu do that prompted God to bar him from crossing the Jordan into Israel? What was the infraction?
This is a tough Torah portion. It's the story of Korach, the man who led a revolt against Moses. He gathers 250 of the most important leaders and challenges Moses: "You take too much upon yourself, Moses. Not just you, but all the congregation is holy, every one of us. Why do you raise yourself up above the congregation?" (Numbers 16:2-3).
There are powerful moments when life’s experiences bring deeper meaning to the Torah and her classic commentators. It was Shabbat, June 5, 1982. I was nearing the end of my first year abroad in Israel, and I spent that Shabbat in Haifa with my family. A few days earlier, on June 3, Israeli Ambassador to England Shlomo Argov was seriously wounded in an attack by three PLO terrorists. Reactions in Israel ranged from shock to outrage, and the winds of war were brewing.
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.
He flopped down on the couch in my study, looking pale, upset. “What is it?” I asked, imagining a bad diagnosis.
Leviticus is the biblical book rabbis do not want you to read. Saturated with sacrificial minutiae and unsettling descriptions of ritual impurity, its countless sheep and goat offerings seem a more effective salve for insomnia than any woe that pains the heart. After all, what do wave offerings or incense recipes have in common with more substantive things, like wireless Internet or the smell of freshly brewed java in the morning?
Each year on Yom Kippur, we read lines from this week’s Torah portion that teach us about appropriate observance during this High Holy Day.
Yuck, skin disease! This has been the cry of many a bar and bat mitzvah student when informed that this week’s Torah portion will be their Torah reading on their big day. I empathize with them, for I have had the same reaction in preparing this column. But as is so often the case with the Torah (and with skin disease), to get to the root of understanding, you have to go below the surface.
Every Passover, as I sit with my family at our seder, I inevitably think of my paternal grandfather, after whom I was named. I never met him. He died five years before I was born, and I was born on the anniversary of his burial. But from earliest childhood, I felt that my grandfather was present, teaching me the values that helped shape my life.
Growing up, I related to the book of Leviticus and its sacrificial cult with indifference (what’s this got to do with me?) or embarrassment (does God really need us to kill animals, sprinkle their blood and burn their carcasses for ritual purposes?). But over time, I’ve learned to love the middle book of the Torah. Here are two strategies that have made living with Leviticus a rich experience.
At the ripe age of 8, I learned the Peter Allen song “Everything Old Is New Again.” It may have been an unusual choice for an 8-year-old to crave hearing over and over. But for me, this song was synonymous with dance class, doing the soft shoe that landed me on stage for the annual spring recital: “Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day, dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.”
Imagine, amid the detailed planning, frenzied gathering of precious objects, painstaking construction and growing sense of anticipation, Moses stands before the people and says, Enough! “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6).
Do you consider yourself an idolater? I ask the question in a serious manner, for one of the main aversions, according to the Torah, is the path of idolatry, a path we witness in our parasha this week, Ki Tisa, with the Golden Calf. Yet, in today’s modern world, what does it mean to be an idol worshiper? Where are we to find the idols of today that we are commanded to avoid?
As human beings, can we know precisely what God wants from us? It might seem, from the beginning of this week’s parasha, that we can: “Bring Me gifts. You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is willing. And these are the gifts you shall accept from them” (Exodus 25:2). God then offers a specific list of valuable things: precious metals and stones, rich textiles, animal skins, wood, oils and spices. At the end of the list of contributions, God says, “They will make me a sanctuary, so that I will dwell among them. Exactly how I show you ... so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). What follows is a template — in unparalleled detail — for building this tabernacle. Why such specificity and detail?
“You shall not take up a false report” (Exodus 23:2). Steve Leaderman, 38, was on trial this month for failing to disperse, having been arrested on Nov. 30 during the final stand of the Occupy L.A. protest at City Hall Plaza. Tried before a jury, these criminal cases carry up to 100 days in prison and hefty fines.
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.
This week I write to you from Jerusalem, inspired by the headline story from this past Tuesday ‘s Ha’aretz. On the first morning of my trip, here is the headline I woke up to: “New Orthodox Rabbinical Group Puts Israeli Women at Its Head – Hopes to Counter Creeping Religious Extremism.” The name of this new organization? Beit Hillel – an appropriate name for an organization that seeks to represent the moderate voice in Judaism.
Parashat Beshallah is a symphony beautifully played, until the orchestra flubs the finale. It is a prima donna nailing the high note of the aria, just to blow out her voice three bars before the close.