Author Archives: Rabbi Danny Nevins

Mountain Man Moses: Mishpatim 5780

Orson Schofield Phelps, AKA “Old Mountain” was a famous guide to the Adirondack mountains in the mid-19th century. Based in Keene Valley, NY, he cut the first trail to the top of Mt Marcy in 1861 and gave many of the high peaks their current names. His face adorned with a bushy beard, his head crowned with an old beaten hat—Old Mountain Phelps enticed city folk to seek out the wild places, to gain altitude and perspective from the vantage of an ancient peak.

The best wilderness guides lead us in more ways than one, sparking curiosity, courage, endurance and strength. Their gaze leads us to notice details in nature and in ourselves. They make us uncomfortable at times—a discomfort required to learn that we are more resilient than we realize, more capable than we dared imagine.

I miss the mountains in the winter, so I dream of summer adventures. And I read about the most famous mountaineer in Jewish history, our teacher Moses. What, you haven’t noticed how many times Moses climbs mountains? He receives his first divine call on the flank of Mt. Horeb in chapter 3 of Exodus; in chapter 17 he climbs a peak to supervise the battle against Amalek; in chapter 19 he climbs Mt Sinai, descends, climbs it again, and descends (though he protests the second descent—at 80 perhaps his knees were a bit creaky). After the golden calf incident he will climb up again, experience God with great intensity, and descend with a heavenly glow, too bright for others to bear. Continue reading

Magic or Medicine? BiShalah 5780

What verse in the Torah can cost you your share in the world to come? It comes in our parashah, and is one of those lines that summarize the Torah’s agenda for Israel: “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer” (Exod. 15:26, NJPS trans.). The first half of this verse is entirely consonant with Israelite and then Jewish religion, but the second half has proved problematic.

In its biblical context, this verse is sandwiched between complaints by the people of Israel who are thirsty, hungry and nostalgic for Egypt. With his reference to the plagues of Egypt, Moses reminds them of the blessings of their lives but also implies that mortal danger awaits those who rebel. If you do not heed the Lord diligently, then don’t expect to be spared the frightful diseases that you recently witnessed in Egypt. This threat was far from effective to judge by the following episode in the wilderness of Tsin, where the people grumbled and yearned for that very curse—to have been killed by God in Egypt.

However, Moses’s threat is not what proved problematic by the rabbinic period. On the contrary, it was the promise by God to heal Israel of all frightful diseases that caused mischief. It seems likely that Jews began using the second half of the verse as a theurgic incantation. When stricken with a malady, some Jews would apparently utter this line as a spell to heal their wounds. That, at least, is the implication of a Mishnah taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva. Continue reading

Moses meets his match; Va-Era 5780

The book of Exodus continues the stories of Genesis in many ways, but is discontinuous in one major detail. In Genesis brothers despise one another and fight for primacy, sometimes from the womb. In Exodus, the siblings Miriam, Aaron and Moses get along and support one another through difficulties. True, at the golden calf incident Moses will chide his brother, and later in Numbers Miriam and Aaron voice criticism of their dominant brother, but for most of the stressful passage from slavery to revelation, they are a solid team.

Especially as they go to confront Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron present a united front. In Chapter 6, verses 26-28, the Torah uses an unusual expression, literally, “he is Aaron and Moses,” and then, “he is Moses and Aaron.” The singular pronoun הוא emphasizes their solidarity, and the reversal of order implies their equality.

Midrash Mekhilta notes the order reversal and links this to many other situations in which the Torah reverses order. For example, in the Decalogue Israel is commanded to “honor your father and mother” but in Leviticus 19 they are told, “revere your mother and father.” Likewise heaven and earth are also listed as earth and heaven, and the patriarchs are listed in reverse order in Exod. 3. The point is that all of these subjects are considered equal. The listing of Aaron first in this passage is unusual but sufficient to establish that the brothers were equals.

And yet, there are differences between Moses and Aaron. Continue reading

Miriam to the Rescue: Shemot 5780

Although our portion introduces the Torah’s greatest figure, Moses, many of the most decisive characters this week are women. There are the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who defy Pharaoh, and Yocheved, the mother of Moses, who hides her child as long as possible, and later, Tziporah, the wife of Moses, who acts decisively to ward off a mysterious attacker, saving the life or lives of her son(s) and perhaps her husband. But the most impressive woman of them all is Miriam, the older sister of Moses, who is also identified as a prophet.

Early in chapter 2 we read, “His sister stood at a distance to know what would happen to him.” Miriam is not only watchful and passive—three verses later she will make a risky move, approaching Pharaoh’s daughter with an audacious offer. But before she acts she observes, and this quiet moment noticed by the Torah is worth exploring. Continue reading

The Vicious Cycle of Slavery: VaYigash 5780

The paradox of Parashat VaYigash is that it opens with reconciliation but ends with alienation. Perhaps this is no paradox, but just a pendulum swing. As we ask in the piyyut unetaneh tokef, מי ירום ומי יושפל, “who will be raised high, and who will be brought low?” Joseph was enslaved by his brothers, and he has returned the favor. They are beautifully reconciled at the start of the portion, but a pattern has been established. By the end of Vayigash the proud and powerful Egyptians are brought low by famine and ultimately enslaved, while the humble herders from Canaan are raised high, growing mighty in the land of Goshen. If so, then the pendulum will swing back again soon, raising the Egyptians high and bringing the Israelites into destitution and enslavement. Continue reading

Wrestling for Blessing: VaYishlah 5780

On the eve of his dreaded reunion with Esau, Jacob remained alone in the dark, and “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” The mysterious assailant injured Jacob, dislocating his thigh, but Jacob refused to let go, so the man pleaded with him, saying: “Let me go, for dawn is breaking!” Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The assailant asked for Jacob’s name, and conferred a new one, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:25-29).

This puzzling passage cries out for interpretation. Who was this man, and why did he attack Jacob? Why was he in such a hurry to depart before dawn? How did Jacob manage to hold on, despite his injury? If this was an unprovoked and injurious attack, then why did Jacob try to prolong it, even asking his attacker for a blessing? Who does that? How is the new name Israel a blessing, and if it really is, then why does the Torah continue to refer to him as Jacob? Why do we?

Into this blizzard of questions step the Rabbis, and they offer many answers. According to the Talmud (BT Hullin 91b), during their match Jacob questions the man—are you a thief of some sort that you are afraid of daylight? “No,” he replies, “I am an angel, and today is my first turn to sing the morning praise.” In a parallel midrashic version (Gen. Rabbah 78), Jacob pragmatically offers, “then let one of your friends sing the praise today, and you can sing tomorrow.” The angel replies, “If I miss today, then they will say, since you didn’t praise yesterday, you can’t praise today.” Continue reading

Va-Yetze 5780: The Brute Strength of Mama’s Boy

Not that there was any serious doubt, but Jacob proves himself to be mama’s boy as soon as he arrives in town. Recall that when Abraham’s servant arrived many years ago, Rebecca jumped into action, drawing water for the ten camels, simultaneously demonstrating strength and compassion. Like mother, like son, Jacob demonstrates strength and compassion when he waters Rachel’s sheep, though he also signals vulnerability when he breaks down and cries before his cousin.

The story is familiar—the shepherds tell Jacob they must wait to uncover the well, since the capstone is too heavy for just a few men. Seeing Rachel approach he is filled with strength and accomplishes the feat alone. There are many word plays that enrich this narrative—Rachel means an ewe; he cares for her sheep, hoping to win her love (whether he succeeds remains a mystery). The words “he watered” (vayashk) and “he kissed” (vayishak) are spelled the same way (וישק), reinforcing the romantic aspect of his animal husbandry. Yet the love here is not only for his newly met cousin. It remains focused on his now distant mother. The psychological drama is intense in this scene; Jacob reconnects with his mother, acting as she acted, returning in her stead to her home, but eager to return to her before too long.

Already in Midrash Bereshit Rabba the sages of Israel added new texture to this narrative. When Jacob removes the stone the text says va’yagal (ויגל) which is different from the form of the verb used just previously, va’yegalalu (ויגללו). The latter form means, “they rolled” the stone, which is what you would expect with an object too heavy to lift, even by a crowd of shepherds. Jacob’s verb seems to mean “he uncovered” which the Midrash compares to the effortless way that a person pulls a cork from a bottle. In other words, Jacob was not only strong, but super-strong. In this he is like Rebecca, who draws hundreds of gallons of water for a train of thirsty camels and then keeps going, helping the servant and then offering him hospitality. She is strong and kind, and so is her son. Continue reading