Category Archives: Divrei Torah

Mind this–Intention Before Action on the Field of Sacred Play: Vayikra/HaHodesh 5778

My baseball career ground to a sudden halt 39 years ago during spring training. It was March 1979, and I was signed up to play in the Sandy Koufax division of our town’s Little League. But that month was also my bar mitzvah, which our family marked with my first trip to Israel. I was supposed to read Vayikra at the “Wailing Wall,” and so I missed two weeks of spring training. The coach wasn’t happy: “No practice, no play.” I can’t really blame him. I was a sloppy player in right field, neglecting to cover my mitt to secure the ball (“One Hand Dan” was not meant as a compliment), though I did have a pretty good throw to make up for the dropped fly balls. Still, it is ironic that my choice to put prayer over play cost me my position, davka in the league named for a pitcher who refused to play on Yom Kippur.

What I loved about baseball, and continue to appreciate as a spectator, was what some people find oppressively tedious. It is a ritualized activity with precisely defined players, props and motions. The ball is in play for only a few minutes of the 3 hour game—one study found an average of 18 minutes of ball in play, meaning that it is 90% standing around. And yet the intense attention of participants and spectators alike infuses those moments with great drama and significance. Games that have constant motion such as hockey and basketball are lively but, to my mind, far less dramatic. As a pitcher prepares to throw, each side seeks to align intention with action; what happens next may change the course of the game, but it all begins in the mind.

It is not a far stretch to compare the slow pace and sudden activity of the baseball diamond with the rhythms of religious ritual, especially in the sacred service described by Leviticus. When we read these verses visually, trying to imagine where each party stands, then deeper layers of meaning can begin to emerge. For example, regarding the burnt offering we learn that the priest brings the animal to the entrance of the tent of meeting—this is apparently the spot between the altar and the sanctum—where he pauses, placing his hands upon the animal’s head and leaning on it. This action activates divine favor, and the subsequent slaughter delivers atonement. Continue reading


From Mishkan to Mitzvah: Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778

There are many shiny objects in the double reading which draws the book of Exodus to its dramatic conclusion. Ancient images of silver, gold and copper flash in the mind’s eye, gemstones sparkle in the breastplate of the high priest, and fine fabrics of blue, purple, crimson and linen adorn the coverings of the tabernacle and the vestments of its priests. More brilliant than all of these riotous colors is the divine glory, which in the final verses enters the tabernacle and is so overwhelming that even Moses can no longer withstand its radiance. Color and light symbolize human devotion and divine response—this parashah is made for the movies.

And yet, all of the visual cues are only indications of something deeper and more subtle. They point to an internal alignment between the people and their God. It is not just a matter of the people’s generosity that impresses this reader. It is something more fundamental, more daunting but also more accessible. The people obey the Lord’s command. Over and over, Parashat Pekudei includes the phrase , “as the Lord commanded Moses” (כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְקֹוָ֖ק אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה). The sages counted 18 instances of this phrase in our portion alone. This phrase appears 60 times in the Torah, so common that it is easy to ignore. But the claim that God issues commands which the people fulfill is the essential architecture of Jewish spiritual life. Continue reading

Purim 5778: On Kashering Hands for Pesah

A beraita quoted in b. Pesahim (6a) states that one must commence study of the laws of Pesah 30 days before the holiday; the practice as codified in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 429:1), and the Mishnah B’rurah (SK 2) is that study should begin on Purim itself. In order to safeguard JTS’s reputation as a center of halakhic stringency, I thought I would address a topic that is often neglected to the detriment and indeed peril of the kosher consumer: namely, the protocol for kashering one’s hands before Passover.

As you know, ceramic utensils are considered porous and therefore are impossible to kasher for Pesah. What, however, about the skin of our hands? You will recall from high school biology that the skin is a semi-porous membrane that absorbs and emits various substances. Try chopping an onion or crushing some garlic—your hands will reek for hours or even days. If you chop jalapeno peppers, remember not to rub your eyes! Indeed, the laws of kashrut recognize the special status of spicy foods as דבר חריף, capable of transferring flavor to a second utensil even without the application of physical heat. A knife or board that has had onion or garlic chopped on it will be considered to take on the kashrut status of any other food substances exposed to that surface at that time.

Obviously there is no avoiding a d’var harif on Pesah, since we have a mitzvah d’oraita to eat maror. Handling any spicy foods and then hametz renders the hands hametzdik. Touching Passover foods with hametzdik hands contaminates them and makes them forbidden to eat or even own on Pesah. It’s a bit like the myth of King Midas—whatever you touch becomes inedible. You can sell your hands for Pesah, of course, but this is complicated since you must then “make kinyan” by lifting the pen with your teeth. So, if selling your hands is not workable, how about kashering them? Not so simple. Continue reading


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