Monthly Archives: October 2014

Noah 5775: Species Purity and the Great Flood

[Published as a JTS Torah Commentary]

Omnicide is a dramatic move, on that we can all agree. But what causes the Creator to grow violently disgusted with the creatures that had just recently been praised as “good” and blessed with fertility? Last year in this space, JTS Provost and Bible Professor Alan Cooper suggested that it was interspecies breeding of human women with divine creatures that angered God, and that it was Noah’s pure genealogy (“perfect in his generations”) that set him apart for salvation. The ancient Rabbis had a similar idea—it was crossbreeding between species that angered God and caused God to reboot with specimens that were still arranged “according to their families” (Gen. 8:19; see Midrash Tanhuma, Buber ed., Noah 11). Froggie

In the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 108a), Rabbi Yohanan teaches that animals prior to the flood were mating not only across species but also across genera, and that humans were mating with “everyone.” This interspecies orgy was the “corruption of all flesh” (Gen. 6:12) that caused the Creator to destroy life on earth. The Torah’s orderly procession of animals into the ark “two by two,” emphasizes species differentiation, which the Bible apparently believes to be a priority of the Creator.  Continue reading

Shmini Atzeret/Bereshit 5775: A Time to Laugh, a Time to Mourn

The celebration of two days of Yom Tov here in the diaspora is a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, extending the holidays gives us more time to examine their meaning and to internalize their message. On the other hand, it can often feel like too mucHoshana Rabba 5775h of a good thing, especially by Shmini Atzeret. We may find ourselves doing strange things, like whipping willows on the ground.

Since the original cause for the extended celebration—uncertainty about the calendar in areas distant from Jerusalem—has been moot for many centuries, it is counterintuitive to keep the diaspora custom. The simplest explanation is of course that of Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof—“Tradition!” A more satisfying explanation relates to the differential experience of Jewishness in contemporary Israel compared to even the largest Jewish communities of the diaspora. In Israel the festivals are truly national in nature, whereas here in New York we move in and out of Jewish community as we walk down the street. When in Israel, one often gets a more intensive infusion of the festival, and so it seems to work faster.  Continue reading

Sukkot 5775: Is Being “Only Joyous” Achievable in this Life?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe mood swing from Yom Kippur to Sukkot is among the most dramatic of Jewish transitions (similar in a way to the less prominent shift of mood from the 9th to the 15th of Av, the saddest and most joyous days of the ancient calendar). From sobriety to celebration, from awe-struck fear to total joy, from fasting to feasting, we reengage with the world beyond the walls of synagogue, remembering that in physical pleasure there may also be spiritual purpose. Deuteronomy (16) famously proclaims Sukkot to be our festival of joy, “rejoice on your festival…and be only joyous.” Bavli Pesahim 109a declares that a person must cause all of his (and her) household to rejoice on the festivals. How? When the Temple stood (and vegetarianism was not prevalent),  with meat, but now, only with wine, as it says, “wine makes the heart rejoice.” (Psalm 104:15). The gemara adds that actually, the point is to cause family members joy with whatever pleases them, whether it be food and drink, or with clothing.

The sages provide various explanations for the Torah’s association of Sukkot with joy. Midrash Pesikta D’Rav Kahana gives a series of explanations, including the claim that Sukkot anticipates the world to come in which blessings will be unrestrained, whereas in this world even apparent blessings often prove disappointing. A parent blessed with children may nevertheless worry whether they will survive or succeed (the expression is בנים של קיימא, which could mean viable progeny, but could also imply spiritual successors). Another explanation for the augmented joy symbolized by Sukkot relates to the harvest and the allaying of food anxiety. The midrash notes that in normal circumstances when a person serves as host, s/he may worry that they will run out of food, so even in the joy of the feast there is anxiety. But in the redeemed future, there will be no lack of food. Sukkot, coming when the fruits of the field have all been gathered, allows one to feast without limit.  Continue reading

Yom Kippur 5775: Becoming Shomrei Yisrael


It was a perfect day at the beach. Early-July, late in the morning. Not too hot, nor too cold; sand stretching off to the horizon, the surf pounding pleasantly at my feet. After an hour of baking on the beach, I ventured into the cool water to play in the waves. First to the toes, then the knees, and then finally I was floating, up and down as the waves crashed over me. Over my shoulder a woman was swimming just a bit further out. I thought of venturing a little deeper like her, but I was getting cold and a bit battered from the waves, so I waded back to the shore.

It was just a matter of seconds as I slogged up to the beach that I noticed the lifeguard grab a float and run past me into the water. Curious, I turned; who is in trouble? The woman who had been just behind me was still riding the waves, but she was caught in a riptide and unable to get to shore. After the first life guard, a second one followed with a line, and then a third guard on shore began to haul all three of them in. No sooner were they on the beach than the guards were diving back in for another swimmer, and then another, and another.

I asked a lifeguard how they knew who was in trouble. She said we look at the faces of the swimmers—the moment they seem to be struggling, we dive in. How fortunate we are when someone else is watching our face, looking for signs of danger, and preparing to help the moment it is needed. We already knew this—after all, we did choose to swim near a lifeguard—but it is still easy to forget our dependence on others for our safety. We like the illusion that we are self-sufficient, that we can court danger with impunity, but the truth is that we depend on one another for our health, our safety, and our very lives. Continue reading