Category Archives: Divrei Torah

Sukkot 5778: Speaking of Joy

The Sefat Emet (R. Judah Aryeh Leib of Gur,1847-1905) offers many gems for deepening our understanding of the festival of Sukkot. He opens one drashah with reference to the “joy of water-drawing” ritual (simhat beit hasho’eivah) which was conducted in the Temple on these days. Mishnah Sukkah (5:1) states that, “one who has not witnessed this ritual has never seen joy in their life.” The Talmud continues with descriptions of the music, and torches, and dancing and acrobatics that accompanied this event. Water would be drawn from the Shiloah spring and carried up to the Temple, then poured onto the altar. Presumably this celebration of water was something akin to a rain dance.

But for Sefat Emet, the “drawing” is actually a spiritual intake—a breathing in of the holy spirit.  Just as God shapes the first human in Genesis and then breathes the breath of life into Adam, so too do we become infused with divine spirit on Sukkot. Rosh HaShanah was the day of new life, and Yom Kippur of atonement and release from our old failures. But Sukkot is a time to infuse our lives with renewal, with meaning, and with joy. “Rejoicing over the house of drawing” refers not only to water, but also to the intake of divine spirit.

Sefat Emet continues that once a person has drawn in the human spirit, they become a נפש חיה, a living being, which is translated into Aramaic by Onkeles as, “a speaking soul.” Just as a child who begins to speak emerges from a state of absorbing information and begins to communicate, so too is Sukkot a time for new life—communicated by speech. When we begin to speak words of Torah, then the divine spirit within us becomes activated. A prophet is primarily a speaker (ניב/נביא), who gives expression to the divine spirit within. Sefat Emet believes that even if we are not prophets, that this expression of spirit in speech is the primary task of Sukkot. Continue reading


Yom Kippur 5778: Who’s in Charge?

An ancient paradox, presented in the name of Rabbi Akiva:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה (אבות ג, טו)

All is foreseen; but choice is given. (Avot 3:15)

These four Hebrew words contain the classic conflict between determinism and free will. For millennia, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have struggled to reconcile the sense that we are free to decide how to behave with the obvious influence that external forces have on us. Do we have agency—personal freedom, and therefore responsibility—or is that all an illusion? The debate takes different forms in different contexts but the key question remains the same—who is in charge? Are we the authors of our own stories, or just their most prominent characters?

On this day of Yom Kippur when we deprive ourselves of physical pleasures, devote ourselves to angelic song, and lovingly recall the memory of our deceased relatives—we can imagine ourselves too as a disembodied presence, pure spirit, free from all physical restraints. But of course, we are not disembodied. We are very much alive, with stomachs growling, feet shuffling and minds wandering. And so, the question that I wish to discuss with you on this Day of Atonement is—Are we free to chart a new course for ourselves, or has all been determined for us in advance? Are we indeed like clay in the hands of the potter, or are we ourselves the potters, shaping our own lives? Continue reading

Yom Kippur 5778: Uplifting Our Lip Service

[This is not my YK sermon, but a message to cantorial and rabbinical students]

The English put-down of “giving lip-service” rings hollow to Jewish ears. Sure, if your actions don’t match your words, there’s a problem, but words are not mere markers for action. Often enough, they themselves are actions. We serve God through worship; we serve one another through kind expressions, and by avoiding hurtful and deceitful expressions. Hosea encourages Israel to return to God by “taking with you words” and “paying with your lips in place of [sacrificial] bulls.” This indicates that what God requires is precisely lip-service. If only that were easily accomplished!

The prayer Kol Nidre reflects our insecurity about flaws in our verbal output, which is a welcome acknowledgement of the challenge before us. Still, often our liturgists seem intent on twisting our tongues. For example, putting the words ענו and ענן in the same paragraph causes many a prayer leader to stumble. The words look almost identical, but in sound (anAV/anAN) and meaning (humble/cloud) they are completely distinct. I have heard many a student mix them up, and then the introduction of the word for sin, עון (aVON) just a few lines later adds to the confusion. Some prayer leaders mispronounce this as “OWN” and the longer version, עונותינו (aVONateinu) as ownateinu. If these three words didn’t look so similar, perhaps fewer of us would stumble upon them. Slowing down to consider what they mean is the best way to get them right. What is going on with the humble guy in the clouds, and what’s he got to do with our sins? Continue reading

Rosh Hashanah 5778: Just Mercy

The pick-up truck was parked outside a prison in rural Alabama. It was festooned with Confederate flags and bigoted bumper stickers; there was a shotgun in a rack. Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer, fresh out of Harvard Law School, coming to visit a new client imprisoned on death row there. He noticed the truck and gave it a look before heading inside. As an African American in Alabama, Stevenson had good reason to worry about that truck, and his concerns were magnified when he met its owner—the very guard who greeted him at the prison gate. He had a Confederate flag tattooed to his arm, and he wasn’t smiling at Stevenson. The guard treated the young lawyer roughly—strip searching him and making him sign the visitor logbook, both against the established protocol for attorneys. The guard grabbed Bryan’s arm and told him that it was his truck, his prison, and his rules that would govern their visit.

Still, Bryan Stevenson persisted, because he was deeply motivated to help some of the most desperate people in our country—death row prisoners. He tells this and other stories in his powerful book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. We learn how Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, and how with great effort he exonerated Walter McMillian, an innocent man who spent six years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Continue reading

Ki Tavo 5777: Blessed in Both Directions

Sometimes translations can’t help but make a mess of the original. A prime example is Deuteronomy 28:6, which in Hebrew consists of six poetic words: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ. JPS requires 15 words to render this in English, “Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings.” Other translations are not much shorter, but they offer a more satisfying, “when you come in,” and “when you go out” (RSV, Alter). Everett Fox, as usual, tries to capture the sound of the Hebrew, but his rendition is still a mouthful: “Blessed be you, in your coming-in, blessed be you, in your going-out.” One challenge for translators is that English lacks the pronominal suffixes and prefix prepositions that allow Hebrew to be so compact.

Another challenge is that the original text is both obvious and opaque. We don’t really know if the Torah intends a simple blessing for arriving home and leaving again, which would basically repeat v.3, “blessed in the city, blessed in the field,” or if the Torah is implying something more elaborate. The phrase could be a merism, that is, an expression which encompasses all possibilities. Hence, “you will be blessed everywhere.” Medieval commentaries consider various options, associating these arrivals and departures either with commerce (looking back to vs. 4-5) or battle (Hizkuni, looking ahead to v. 7), or both. Good for the medieval commentators for offering such contextual readings! (I also like the dressed-up Aramaic Targum Yonatan, which offers, “Blessed are you when you come home to the study hall, and blessed too when you go out to the marketplace”—the rabbinic fantasy life). Continue reading

Ki Tetze 5777: Parapets and Public Safety

The National Society of Professional Engineers maintains a Code of Ethics which opens with the fundamental canon that engineers shall, “Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” Structures, tools and other features of the built environment may be designed with what is known as “operational morality,” meaning that care has been taken to ensure that both the construction process and the final product are safe. I have been studying issues of machine morality this summer for a new responsum on halakhah and autonomous vehicles, but for today, my focus is on building safety, specifically during the course of construction.

Parashat Ki Teitze contains the following instruction: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8; JPS trans). As is their habit, the sages of Israel take this single verse both deep and wide. They seek to define its parameters—does it refer only to new construction, or also to purchasing or renting an existing structure? Does it matter if the building is singly or jointly owned? If it is intended for private or public use? How high and how wide must a structure be before this obligation is invoked? Practical answers to all of these questions are found in the early midrash (Sifre Devarim, #229), and Talmud Yerushalmi (Sukkah) and Bavli (Sukkah, BM, BB etc.). If there is any reasonable expectation that a person might use the roof, and any danger that they might fall, then it is the responsibility of the builder, owner, or renter to install a sturdy and effective barrier to protect people from danger.

Our sages go further, comparing this verse to a passage in Exodus (21:33-34) which likewise addresses public safety: “When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal.” With this comparison, the sages have expanded the Torah’s concern from the narrow one of building a parapet to the much broader issue of public safety. In b. Ketubot 41b, Rabbi Natan asks, “What is the source for the rule that a person should not maintain a vicious dog, or keep a shaky ladder at home? It is the verse (from our portion), “so that you do not bring blood-guilt in your house.” The parapet is just an example of the broader principle—both the building and that which it contains must be made as safe as possible. Continue reading

Re’eh 5777: Doing Right and Good, Denouncing Evil

There is no shortage of specific laws in the book of Deuteronomy—41 mitzvot are found in Parashat Re’eh alone. Yet this book also uses a more general instruction when it offers variants of the expression: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (6:18, 12:28, et al). This is the opposite of the warning issued early in the portion, “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases….” The contrast sets up an opposition between individual conscience, which is considered subjective and unreliable, versus divine instruction, which is universal and timeless. Fair enough, but how can one be sure what God deems right, in general terms?

Several later biblical figures are recognized for doing that which is right and good—kings Asa and Hezekiah are praised in this way. There seems to be both a negative and a positive element to such virtuous conduct. On the negative side, they destroyed cultic sites which the prophets of Israel identified as false worship. On the positive side, they sought out the instruction (Torah) and commands (mitzvot) of the Lord. Hezekiah is said to have searched for God with all of his heart, and as a result, to have succeeded. So, doing that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord includes both a negative and a positive mandate—to purge what is deemed evil, and to pursue and practice that which is good. Still, how to know which is which? Continue reading