Bereshit 5782: Freewill from Forbidden Fruit

Who wouldn’t want to eat a fruit that makes them smarter? In Chapter 2 of Genesis, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden and invites the first people to taste any fruit in the garden, except for the fruit of one tree: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why not? A disturbing…

Humility from Heaven: Pinhas 5781

“And there shall be a sin offering for the Lord” (Numbers 28:15).   Did God commit a sin? What? When? We know all about the sin of Adam and Eve, but God is perfect, right? Indeed, the Torah does describe God in Deuteronomy 32:4 as “The Rock, the Perfect One…whose ways are just..who is never false,…

A Better Way to Pay Restitution: Naso 5781

Many years ago my car was stolen from its spot outside our apartment in Michigan. In the middle of the night a police officer woke us up and informed me that someone had been pulled over while driving it with a smashed window down Northwestern Highway—had I by chance lent it to them? I had…

Stand up straight? Behar-Behukotai 5781

Just before the Torah switches from blessing to rebuke in our second portion, Behukotai, God reminds the people that they were removed and liberated from Egyptian servitude in order to walk upright, and without restraint (Levit. 13:13). The word for “upright” קוֹמְמִיּוּת is unusual and ambiguous. As Rashi comments, it means “standing straight,” which is…

The Palace of Torah Expanded: Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5781

For many modern readers, engaging with Torah presents a paradox. Biblical and rabbinic voices reaching us from the distant past are like starlight emitted millennia ago—brilliant and often shockingly current, but also artifacts from light sources that may have dimmed or even expired. This paradox can be constructive, drawing modern readers out of our own…

Feel the Love this Pesah: Shabbat HaGadol 5781

What’s love got to do with it? We are accustomed to thinking of Passover as the festival of freedom, of liberation from enslavement, the march from Mitzrayim to Sinai, and on to the Land of Israel and national independence. The themes of Passover are those of justice, moral purpose, resilience and strength. Its foods symbolize…

Confessions of Joy: Vayikra 5781

The Hebrew word “semikhah” in various forms alludes to drawing close, leaning into or supporting another, or laying on of hands. In that purposeful contact there is a transfer of energy and the establishment of connection between two living beings. When Moses lays hands on Joshua, he confers spiritual power, ordaining Joshua as his successor….

The Festival of Education: Shabbat HaHodesh 5781

Passover is sometimes called “the festival of education” (חג החינוך). I have been unable to find this expression in pre-modern sources, but it accords with classic rabbinic approaches to the holiday. For our sages the art of pedagogy includes multi-sensory inputs of sight, sound, touch and taste, as well as differentiated instruction for various learning…

Purification after Violence: Parah 5781

Tony Hicks was fourteen years old in 1995 when he shot and killed a college student named Tariq Khamisa in a gang-related robbery. Hicks was convicted of murder, and was imprisoned until 2019, but meanwhile something quite unusual occurred. Five years after the crime, Tariq’s father Azim visited Tony in prison, and gradually the two…

A Tabernacle for Today: Terumah/Zakhor 5781

כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל כֵּלָיו וְכֵן תַּעֲשׂוּ: “And so shall they do,” is an unremarkable coda to God’s command to Moses that Israel must build a tabernacle in Exodus 25:9. Could this little phrase be a marker for our kind of Judaism, linked powerfully to the past but…

Reclaiming the Crown of Torah: Mishpatim 5781

In the Song of Songs (5:2) we read a romantic verse, “I was asleep, but my heart was awake.” אני ישנה ולבי ער—the plain sense of the verse is that the time of sleep is also a time of longing. The rabbis interpret this verse to mean that the people of Israel before Sinai were…

Oh Freedom: Bishalah 5781

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedomOh freedom over meAnd before I’d be a slaveI’d be buried in my graveAnd go home to my Lord and be free These stirring words from the post-Civil War anthem have been recorded and performed at important moments in American history. Odetta recorded a great version in 1956. Joan Baez performed it…