Zakhor 5778: Hear the Voice of Esther

I recently had a first meeting with a prospective convert and her partner. Introducing the importance of Torah study to Jewish identity, I rolled open my Megillah on the desk before them and began to share the story of Purim. It’s not often that one observes a first impression of Esther, but this woman had never heard the Megillah before, and her eyes widened with horror and outrage at the repellent and yet familiar behavior of nearly all of the men in this story. “Tell me that the King gets punished,” she said, but no, the king remains in power. The absence of justice, I noted, points to the absence of God, who is unmentioned in the Megillah, a dark and frightening book, despite scenes of comic relief. This darkness highlights the one point of light, which is the courageous speech of Esther in confronting two men who treat her like furniture.

Sadly, even Mordecai is guilty of manipulating Esther when he sends his niece to seduce the king. This is captured well in a skit from the Israeli comedy series, “The Jews are Coming,” in which Esther objects to her uncle’s plan, saying, “you want me to be a whore?” The more he insists that it’s not like that, the more problematic his plan becomes.  True, his motivation is positive, and even though he doesn’t really have an actual plan at the beginning, it works out for Esther. Still, Mordecai’s insistence that she remain silent at his command, and then speak at his word reinforces the sense that she is his puppet, not a person endowed with moral agency. Continue reading


Terumah 5778: A Tent to Stand for all Time

Tent pole technology keeps improving. Newer models have lightweight, aluminum poles that are flexible, threaded with elastic to keep together, and color-coded to help fit them in the right clips and sleeves. When you are trying to assemble a tent as it starts to rain, the wind whips up and the light fades, you really appreciate these little details! In a good year I spend about two weeks sleeping in a tent, and I always appreciate the attention to detail in making these mobile structures functional and hardy.

Tents are on my mind not only because the winter is winding down, but because with Parashat Terumah we have entered the tabernacle zone of the Torah. I find the entire structure fascinating—the triple-layer covering, the planks of standing acacia wood, plated in gold, the silver sockets, and especially the bars that hold the entire structure in place. These bars, called בריחים, are basically tent poles, except that they hold up wood walls instead of fabric ones.

Each of the three sides of  the tabernacle had 5 poles made of acacia wood, all overlaid with gold. Four for each wall were half-length, dividing between them the upper and lower portions of the planks, but there was a long pole that ran the entire length of each wall of the tabernacle. This central pole was “within the planks,” which the rabbis understand to refer to a slot grooved through the panels that the pole penetrated. Our ancestors devoted much attention to these mysterious middle poles, which were extremely long, apparently 32 cubits = approximately 48 feet. Continue reading

Yitro 5778: Singing at Sinai

Seeking inspiration to spin faster on a stationary bike, I recently searched Spotify for an old song and came up with “Swingtown” by the Steve Miller Band. I don’t think I had heard it in decades, but I was instantly taken back to my 15 year old self, at least in my mind. Tedious exercise became joyous transportation as the music summoned memories of the Canadian Rockies, where I biked for a month that summer. The sense of smell is often associated with memory, but I find music to be equally powerful. Perhaps this is why we emphasize the chanting of our sacred texts. Singing the words of Torah adds another layer of association, lending drama to the narrative and connecting us to earlier recitations, both in our lives and in those of our ancestors.

At the end of Bavli Megillah (32a) Rabbi Yohanan is quoted: “Whoever reads [Torah] without melody, or studies without song, is the target of the verse, ‘Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good, and rules by which they could not live (Ezekiel 20:25).’” Elsewhere in rabbinic literature this verse is associated with ways that a person might ruin the majesty of the divine word. Music is not a mere ornamentation but an essential accompaniment to the experience of Torah. Rabbi Yohanan’s terse statement is arguably the foundation of our system of singing scripture, though it likely reflects much older traditions that had developed over the centuries. It wasn’t until the time of the Masoretes in 9th century Tiberias that the system of “accents” was fully established, but the musical traditions associated with them developed both before and after that time. While there are many different melodies for chanting an accent such as “gershaim,” depending on the book of Bible and the community of origin, the notations themselves play a role in adding meaning to the text. Continue reading

B’Shalah 5778: Sweet Bitter Waters

Between the Reed Sea and Sinai comes Israel’s first trek and camping adventure. At Marah they find only bitter waters, but at Elim they are blessed with twelve springs and seventy date palms. What a difference decent food and water make when you are out in the wild! Anxiety about sustenance can quickly erode all good will—gratitude for the recent liberation, and excitement for the blessings ahead. Three thirsty days after chanting the song of the sea, Israel rapidly spews out a querulous litany of complaints. Thirst and hunger displace any capacity for exalted spiritual themes, reducing the people to their most primal instincts for physical survival.

Or so you would expect. While Israel does indeed complain in the wilderness, it is also there that they hear the divine voice. As Isaiah says, “A voice calls out in the wilderness,” and it is in this place of privation that Israel achieves its greatest insights. There seems to be a link between physical discomfort and spiritual breakthrough, and it begins with the bitter waters of Marah. Continue reading

Bo 5778: Is He Unhinged?

Pharaoh is getting flustered, acting erratically and not making much sense. His servants have asked him, “Don’t you realize that Egypt is lost?” One senses that he is rattled by their condescending tone. Then he summons Moses and explodes, “Go, serve the Lord your God–who are the ones to go?” It’s a bit grotesque to watch. This powerful man suddenly has no power, but he hasn’t quite realized it yet. So he resumes interrogating Moses about who exactly is on the roster to worship God. This elicits one of the greatest lines attributed to Moses—“We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe the Lord’s festival.”

In my movie mind, I imagine Moses standing up tall—looking Pharaoh in the eye, and making his proud declaration of intent. All-of-us-are-going. We love reading this text—it shows that Moses, and thus the Torah, and thus Judaism, has an inclusive ideal of worship. Regardless of gender or generation—all Israelites are required to worship God properly. At least that is how we like to read it. But Pharaoh is not stirred. In fact, his response sounds unhinged. He utters three phrases which don’t quite add up to a coherent statement.

JPS renders his confusing response as, “The Lord be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief.” Each year I read this line and wonder what he is trying to say. I’m not alone, of course. Let us consider two Midrashic readings, one quite reasonable and yet incomplete, and the other far more expansive, not quite convincing and yet far more satisfying. Continue reading

Mikketz and Hanukkah 5778: Evading Killing Curses and Accepting Responsibility

Parashat Mikketz ends with Joseph’s elaborate ruse to test his half-brothers and see if they will betray Benjamin just as they had betrayed him. He plants his silver divination goblet in Benjamin’s saddle bags, as well as the silver payment in all of their bags, just as he had done the first time. Haven’t the brothers been to the rodeo before? Why didn’t they learn to check the saddle bags?

I noticed in this reading that the story of the “stolen” goblet refers back not only to the previous grain-buying mission, but also to an earlier incident. During the flight of Jacob and his double family from Laban’s estate, Laban chases after them and his stolen idols, accusing Jacob of robbery, and eliciting an indignant denial. The two incidents are different in many respects. Joseph plants his goblet to incriminate the innocent Benjamin, whereas Rachel steals her father’s idol. Jacob is clearly testing his brothers. It’s less clear what motivates Rachel to grab the household gods. But the two tales are similar in one important aspect. When Jacob hears Laban’s accusation, he rashly proclaims, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” (Gen. 31:32). Not much later he must bury his beloved Rachel by the side of the road. Here in Mikketz, the brothers likewise protest their innocence in stealing Joseph’s goblet, rashly proclaiming, “Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die; the rest of us, moreover, shall become slaves to my lord.” (Gen. 44:9). Continue reading

Vayeshev 5778: From the Depths of Hebron

One wonders what Jacob really knew about the relationship between his sons, just as we wonder about how attentive Isaac had been to his battling boys. Jacob does seems to be on to something once Joseph starts sharing his dreams, and “his father guarded the matter.” Did he, though? In Chapter 37:11, Jacob says to Joseph, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” The verse ends, “So, he sent him from the valley of Hebron.” This verse includes the root SHLM twice—implying the father’s yearning that his favorite son would encounter “peace” with his brothers. How likely was that? Perhaps he was trying to reassure Joseph, who must have been anxious, or perhaps Jacob was deluding himself.

Or perhaps not. There is a dark and fascinating midrash found in Bavli Sotah 11a. Rabbi Hanina b. Pappa plays on the word for valley, עמק, which also means “depth” and considers what, or who, is located beneath Hebron. Rashi on the verse points out that Hebron is in the hill territory—there is no valley there—so what could the “depth of Hebron” mean? The rabbinic answer is that Jacob’s grandparents and parents were buried “deep in Hebron.” In this Midrash, Rabbi Hanina takes the drash a second step and says that Jacob was inspired by the “deep counsel” of the saint buried in Hebron—Abraham—to send Joseph to seek his brothers. Huh? What does Abraham have to do with the conflict between his great-grandsons? Continue reading