Category Archives: Divrei Torah

Complicity and Conscience: Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5780

The Torah says that Caleb ben Yifuneh was blessed with “a different spirit,” and that this differentiation allowed him alone to survive the curse of death in the desert. At Numbers 14:23, God tells Moses that the entire generation that had witnessed divine miracles in Egypt and the desert but had nevertheless acted testily ten times would never see the land, but rather die in the wilderness. The next verse reads, “But my servant Caleb had a different spirit with him, and followed me, so I will bring him to the land where he had come, and his seed will inherit it.”

This verse occasions many questions. Why only Caleb? What about Joshua? Why is Caleb called “my servant,” an honorific used sparingly in the Torah (though Avot D’Rabbi Natan gives 18 examples)? And what is his different spirit? Our commentators have much to say on this and more. Joshua acquitted himself well, but perhaps only because Moses gave him special attention and protection. His survival is therefore not entirely earned. And at the crucial moment in the prior chapter, Caleb alone spoke out against the evil report of the spies, silencing them with his confident belief in God. For this reason, he is honored with the title “my servant” and singled out to enter the Land. But what was his different spirit?

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Separation from Cain: Naso 5780

“When a man or a woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged.” (Numbers 5:5-7).

This passage from Parashat Naso opens a section dedicated to the purification of the camp of Israel prior to its journey toward the Land. It anticipates interpersonal conflict and notes that hurtful behavior has both social and spiritual consequences. The bad actor has wronged both their victim and also God, since brazen behavior denies divine authority. They are required to confess their actions, to pay restitution plus a fine. There is also a required sacrifice—a ram of expiation (איל הכפורים)—to repair the spiritual component of the sin.

The phrase לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּה’, translated by JPS as “breaking faith,” is rendered in the Aramaic translations as “speaking lies,” before the Lord. Robbery always involves an element of deception. The rabbis notice that back in Levit. 5:21 a similar law is taught, but there the victim is identified as “one’s kinsman,” namely, a fellow Israelite, so this passage comes to be known as גזל הגר, “stealing from a stranger.” Even if the victim has died before the thief can be forced to restore the stolen property, and even if the victim has no heirs, the stolen goods must still be repaid, in this case to the public purse of the priests. The “stranger” is claimed as “one of us.” They are protected from theft, and if robbed, they are owed apology and restitution.

One of the more imaginative and timely expansions of this text is found in the Zohar to Naso (3:122). Who is a biblical figure most associated with both violence and deception? Cain. But we don’t know much of his subsequent history. As always, Midrash abhors (or exploits) a vacuum. There is a later biblical people called the “Kenites,” (קנים), and the rabbis like to associate them with Cain (קין).  In the book of Judges, there is a verse which sets up the valorous act of Yael in defeating Sisera that reads, “Heber the Kenite separated from Cain, from the sons of Hobab, father-in-law of Moses (4:11). What does it mean to “separate from Cain”? Continue reading

As if a slave, as if free: Pesah 5780

Pharaoh says something odd to Moses and Aaron right at the start of their confrontation: “Why do you distract the people from their tasks? Get to your labors!” The first half of the sentence implies that Moses and Aaron are not enslaved like other Israelites with “their tasks.” But by the end of the verse Pharaoh includes the leaders with their people—“Get to your labors!” Well, which is it? At this point are Moses and Aaron free, or enslaved?

This ambiguity is addressed in Midrash Shemot Rabbah. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi is quoted there saying that the tribe of Levi was free from harsh labor in Egypt. This is why Moses and Aaron were at leisure to walk around and engage Pharaoh in conversation. Apparently he noticed this and decided that their freedom was a problem, and so he commanded them to join in the labor.

This little piece of Midrash is modified by Rashi, who preserves the essential point—the Levites were exempt from slavery. He understands the end of the verse somewhat differently—Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to return to their housework, not to assume slave labors, since they remained free Israelites in Egypt. Maharal adds to Rashi in his Gur Aryeh super-commentary, saying that Levi was exalted and exempted from the prophecy given to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved. Continue reading

Sheltering in Place: Shabbat Tzav/HaGadol 5780

Confinement is the dominant experience of the Covid-19 crisis, whether one is healthy but avoiding unnecessary outings, or ill and under quarantine. My favorite time of day here in NYC is 7 PM when people lean out their windows and cheer for health care providers and other front line workers. From our apartment we see people across the street hollering appreciation, and it feels good to be part of a public activity, even from a distance. Apparently this Covid custom began in Spain; it is a bright spot of engagement and appreciation in a time of danger and anxiety.

Sheltering in place is a key theme of Pesah—during the plague of hail all those who believed in God’s warning stayed inside, while the brazen remained outdoors and perished. Likewise with the tenth plague—Israelite families sealed their doors with blood and sheltered in place, praying that the destroyer (המשחית) would pass over their homes, not enter and afflict them. They were commanded, “none of you shall depart from the entrance of their house” (וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ ). This remains the essential emotion of the home based ritual of Pesah—to shelter in place and experience the fear of that moment, so that we may celebrate survival and freedom in the future. However, the tenth plague is not the only association with confinement this Shabbat. Continue reading

Minyan in Cyberspace?

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives in many unfortunate ways, and we worry that much worse is yet to come. Saving lives is our first obligation, and this responsibility led most Jewish communities across the world to cancel public worship as soon as public health officials recommended this measure. As with other aspects of our lives, prayer has migrated online, immediately raising the question of how much of the liturgy can be completed through virtual gatherings.

Certainly the essential prayers may be said alone, and this crisis dramatizes the importance of personal prayer practice. Nevertheless, our ancestors taught us that communal worship has special power (עת רצון) and emphasized the importance of gathering for worship. Our gatherings have legal, spiritual, social and psychological benefits. Our current situation of home quarantine leaves many of us feeling isolated and demoralized.

We seek to balance our need to gather, to praise God, to support each other, and to acknowledge important transitions in our lives. How much of this can be done online? What distinctions should be maintained in order to retain the integrity of Jewish worship and to celebrate once normalcy is restored? Specifically, may a minyan be made online? Please see my analysis of the subject and the primary sources below that. I pray that all who have been sickened by this disease will speedily heal, that the pandemic will speedily resolve, and that we will soon return to our holy communities with a deeper sense of appreciation for their spiritual shelter.

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Temples of the Mind: Terumah 5780

A wood model has been on display in the JTS entrance for the past few years. It depicts the 21st Century campus with all its structures—the atrium, gardens, library, auditorium and residence hall. In its three dimensionality the model is more evocative than the posters fashioned by computer aided design of phantom students occupying imagined space. Still, both model and posters have built general awareness and excitement for the experience of entering and inhabiting the constructed spaces, which has played out in slow motion over the course of this year.

The ability to imagine a reality which does not quite exist is foundational to consciousness, as Michael Graziano teaches with his attention schema theory (see part one and part two of my Sinai and Synapses consciousness blog on this subject, and its implications for Jewish life). We are constantly bombarded by sensory inputs and must construct a simplified image in order to prioritize certain signals, and thus to understand, respond to and shape external reality. This same ability allows us to project what is on the minds of others, and to imagine alternative realities, past, present and future. As we chant this week, וּרְאֵה וַעֲשֵׂה, see and then act. Our brains construct a visual model, or schema, of reality, and this allows us to preview actions such as the movement of our hands to grasp objects before attempting the task.

We have now entered the section of Torah in which a complex physical structure, the tabernacle, is imagined in the portions Terumah and Titzaveh before being built in VaYakhel and Pekudei. Modern readers are challenged to imagine this construction project in precisely the same fashion as ancient Israelites were challenged to imagine it before they began to build. And although their imagination was soon applied to physical labor, our imagination is also constructive. We read these passages and appreciate the blending of physical and spiritual qualities in our lives, and then implement that reality with buildings and rituals of our own. We share the desire and the effort to draw divinity into our living spaces so that the world can shimmer with divine glory. Continue reading

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