Tithing for Today: Ki Tavo 5779

What do the Torah’s tithes have to do with us? Is there a straight line connecting verses that call for support of the Levite, stranger, widow and orphan to the forms of charity practiced today? Our portion includes an emphatic command not only to mitigate poverty, but also to help the vulnerable achieve satiety: When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements (Deut. 26:12). This is a high standard, and quite distant from our current practice, but the Torah insists.

Back in Deuteronomy 14, a chapter focused on permitted and forbidden foods concluded with the command to share food with those most in need. There too the standard was to feed them to satiety, that the Lord will bless you in all your work that you do. This claim is reminiscent of Isaac telling Esau to feed him so that father might bless his first born son  (Gen. 27:4). Here too food is a pathway to blessing, but instead of “feeding” God at the altar, we are asked to feed the poor and vulnerable. Does this command apply only to field crops, or does it also cover salaries and capital gains? Continue reading


Perfect and Whole in a Broken World Shoftim 5779

What’s our position on mediums? Years ago in Detroit some in the Jewish community were drawn to a woman who claimed that she could channel conversations with their deceased relatives. Families who with my help had faithfully followed the Jewish traditions of hesped, levaya, shiva and kaddish were, some time later, meeting with her to check in with their loved ones. I get the appeal, but really? Do we resign ourselves to a “whatever works” approach, or speak out against practices that seem misguided?

It goes against the grain of our times to criticize others for their spiritual practices, no matter how strange they may seem. On a pastoral level I would never chastise a bereaved person who sought comfort in this way. And yet, when people would ask me, “Does Judaism approve of this?” I felt bound to answer honestly: Certainly not! Our portion warns the people Israel not to imitate such customs, including consulting ghosts or familiar spirits or inquiring of the dead (Deut. 18: 9-12). Instead, we are commanded, “You must be wholehearted (תמים) with the Lord your God.” (18:13) Continue reading

Hazon 5779: A Nuanced View of Comfort

Shabbat Hazon is one of only three Shabbatot known primarily for its haftarah—the others being Nahamu next week and Shuvah during the ten days. Our haftarah from Isaiah 1 culminates the three weeks of admonition (תלתא דפורענותא) and sets the stage for tonight’s reading of Eikhah. To understand this transition and its contemporary significance we will begin with Hebrew grammar, proceed to biblical theology and end with American politics. Together, it’s about changing perspective, accepting the reality of painful and permanent changes, and building new identity on the still smoldering ruins of a vanished world.

We begin with grammar. The Hebrew root נחמ has much to do with comfort. As a noun, it forms נחמה, comfort, a loving response to loss. A person who offers comfort is called a מנחם, a comforter, and names like Menahem, Nahman and Nehama offer the hope that after a painful loss, a child can fill the void, bringing new life to a family. Jewish Aramaic has the same word—נחמתא—and the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av are known as the seven weeks of comfort, שבעתא דנחמתא, whose haftaroth are all taken from the second half of Isaiah, which the Talmud claims is a book entirely dedicated to comfort.[1]

As a verb, נחמ appears in several forms, or binyanim, as the 7 Hebrew verb forms are known. According to the Brown, Driver, Briggs lexicon (636-7) there are four forms, but for simplicity’s sake we will focus on only two, the piel and nifal. You know the piel—it is basically a simple verb, like לדבר, to speak, and מדבר, speaking. לנחם is to comfort, and מנחם is comforting. It is a transitive verb, something one does for another. It’s what a decent character does to console another over a loss. Failure to offer comfort to a person in despair is indecent—the height of cruelty and betrayal. Continue reading

JTS Ordination Address ל”ג בעומר תשע”ט/ May 23, 2019

This ceremony of investiture and ordination, Tekes Hasmakhah, represents the transmission of knowledge and authority down through the generations of Jewish leaders to the wise minds, sensitive souls and capable hands of our new cantors and rabbis. It is a moment of great celebration radiating from this room across the world, and up to the very heavens. Mazal tov to all of us!

Hasmakhah literally means “laying on of hands,” and it hearkens back to the moment when Moses recognized Joshua as his successor, placing both hands on his head and sharing the divine spirit with him, וַיִּסְמֹךְ אֶת יָדָיו עָלָיו וַיְצַוֵּהוּ.[1] Private ordination of disciple by mentor is one model for this transmission, and today each of our graduates has chosen a mentor to bless them and to lay on hands. However, the Torah gives us an additional model when all the people lay their hands on the Levites, designating them as leaders, וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם and we at JTS view the transmission of authority as a collective responsibility involving many teachers.[2] Continue reading

Defective Priests and Animals; Dignity Demanded for All. Emor 5779

Last week in Parashat Kedoshim we read one of the most enlightened passages in the Torah. In verse 14 the Torah commands us not to curse the deaf, nor to trip the blind, but to fear the Lord your God. This verse is embedded within a glorious section about social solidarity, including concern for the elderly, the poor, the vulnerable worker. It climaxes with the centerpiece of the Torah, but love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. These verses are all important, but the command not to take advantage of people with physical disabilities is perhaps most notable and noble:

ויקרא פרק יט, יד

(יד) לֹא תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה’:

Savor that verse, because unfortunately, it is not all that Leviticus has to say about disability, as we heard today when we read the portion. Parashat Emor opens with regulations about the priesthood, their marriage partners and mandate to maintain ritual purity. Fair enough, but then in chapter 21 there is an extensive passage about physical blemishes that disqualify the priests from serving at the Temple altar. Let’s read this painful passage together:

ויקרא פרק כא, טז-כג

(טז) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (יז) דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אִישׁ מִזַּרְעֲךָ לְדֹרֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרַב לְהַקְרִיב לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו: (יח) כִּי כָל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרָב אִישׁ עִוֵּר אוֹ פִסֵּחַ אוֹ חָרֻם אוֹ שָׂרוּעַ: (יט) אוֹ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל אוֹ שֶׁבֶר יָד: (כ) אוֹ גִבֵּן אוֹ דַק אוֹ תְּבַלֻּל בְּעֵינוֹ אוֹ גָרָב אוֹ יַלֶּפֶת אוֹ מְרוֹחַ אָשֶׁךְ: (כא) כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב אֶת  אִשֵּׁי ה’ מוּם בּוֹ אֵת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב: (כב) לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו מִקָּדְשֵׁי הַקֳּדָשִׁים וּמִן הַקֳּדָשִׁים יֹאכֵל: (כג) אַךְ אֶל הַפָּרֹכֶת לֹא יָבֹא וְאֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא יִגַּשׁ כִּי מוּם בּוֹ וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֶת מִקְדָּשַׁי כִּי אֲנִי ה’ מְקַדְּשָׁם:

If you look closely at the passage, you’ll notice some interesting features. First, there are 12 blemishes listed. This is hardly an exhaustive list of things that can go wrong with our bodies, so either there is something very special about these conditions, or the list could be paradigmatic—just examples of the endless litany of injury and disease. Indeed, the rabbis counted 142 disqualifying blemishes in Mishnah Bekhorot, Chapter 7 (מומים אלו), including the deaf and the mute. So much for our progressive attitude. Continue reading

Silence Above and Below: Aharei Mot 5779

 Ze’ev Wilhelm Falk was a professor of law at Hebrew University who also served as rector and faculty at the Schechter institute in Jerusalem. Born in Breslau in 1923, he fled Germany alone at 16, arriving in Israel in 1939, and went on to study in the Hevron yeshivah and then at Hebrew University. He is best known as a scholar of religious law and ethics (I lived near his home on HaRav Berlin in 1991 and bought a copy of his book of this title from him), but he also wrote poetry and prayers. If you look at the Yom HaShoah section of the daily Siddur Sim Shalom (p.202), you will find a powerful prayer that he wrote called “Silence” (דומיה):

אבינו מלכינו שמא תפלתנו שלא לרצון? יאתה לשכולים ולך דומיה—מול דמי עוללים.

עמדת על דם בנך עבדך, התש כחך? תשה תפלתנו, הותשה תורתנו, שמע קול הדממה.

Avinu Malkenu—Is it possible that our prayer is not acceptable to You? Attend those who are bereft—You are silent in the presence of the blood of sucklings! You stood by as the blood of Your children was shed—has Your strength failed. Our prayer is diminished, our Torah has been compromised. Listen to the sound of our silence.

In this poem Falk juxtaposes the words דם (blood) and דום (silent) to great effect. Human prayer is voiced but unheard—it might as well be silence. Babies bleed and cry—but elicit no divine response. What became of the listening and responsive God who spoke to Cain, saying, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil” (Gen. 4:10, trans. Alter). What of Ezekiel’s image of Israel as a bloody baby taken up by God and told to live (Ez. 16:6)? What of the “still small voice” that greeted Elijah (1 Kg 19:12)? Rabbinic literature often states, “when X happened, the strength of Y failed (תשש כחו).”  But here it is God whose strength has failed (תש כחך), and as a result, so too have the prayers and Torah of Israel failed. Suffering, screams, and supplications—none of it matters, so it seems, to the silent God. In a bitter closing, the poet instructs God to listen to the sound of our silence. After the Shoah, we literally give God the silent treatment. Continue reading

Why is this Shabbat different from all others? Shabbat HaGadol 5779

I recently noticed a curious feature of the Passover prophetic cycle. On Shabbat HaGadol, the final Shabbat before Pesah, we read the final verses of the final prophet—Malakhi 3:4-24. The next haftarah, on the first day of Passover is from the first book of the prophets, Joshua, albeit not the first chapter (which is read on Simhat Torah). In the fall we emphasize the cycle of Torah, ending Deuteronomy and resuming Bereshit, but in the spring our emphasis is on the prophets, whose messages shift our gaze from past to present and on to the future. This is certainly the case with our haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, which speaks of the dual failures of Israel following the building of the second Temple. On the one hand, they have perverted justice, taking advantage of the vulnerable in society; on the other hand, they have ruined rituals, making a mockery of the gifts of their restored national existence. Continue reading