Category Archives: Divrei Torah

A Better Way to Pay Restitution: Naso 5781

Many years ago my car was stolen from its spot outside our apartment in Michigan. In the middle of the night a police officer woke us up and informed me that someone had been pulled over while driving it with a smashed window down Northwestern Highway—had I by chance lent it to them? I had not, and I was relieved to get the car back, even in its battered state. I was also curious about my relationship with the person who had taken my car. Auto theft is a felony, and so the thief was criminally charged by the state, sentenced to imprisonment, and ordered to pay me restitution for the damage to my vehicle. He was not, however, asked to confess or apologize to me. I was left with annoyance, inconvenience and a deductible; he was left to the clutches of the penal system.

I used to visit a different prisoner in Jackson, MI, and wondered if I should look up my thief, but decided it was not a good idea. Still, I had the sense that while punishment had been meted out, an opportunity had been missed to repair the deeper tear in the social fabric. I remember protesting the system—what good does it do to me or anyone else for him to go to prison? Better that he be asked to apologize and pay a penalty to the victim of his crime.

That, at least, is what the Torah teaches. In our portion (Numbers 5:5-10) the Torah states, “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a person, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and the person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.” This verse does not specify theft as the violation, but a similar passage in Leviticus 5: 20-26, specifies that the punishment for theft is to return the property to the victim plus a 20% fine. Read together, these passages indicate that property crimes do damage not only to the direct victim but also to society and even to God. For this reason restitution requires not only the return of property but also confession, a hefty penalty and even a sacrifice of purification.

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Stand up straight? Behar-Behukotai 5781

Just before the Torah switches from blessing to rebuke in our second portion, Behukotai, God reminds the people that they were removed and liberated from Egyptian servitude in order to walk upright, and without restraint (Levit. 13:13). The word for “upright” קוֹמְמִיּוּת is unusual and ambiguous. As Rashi comments, it means “standing straight,” which is a posture of strength—but is that an entirely good thing?

In tractate Brakhot 43b. Torah sages are warned to avoid various behaviors, including “walking upright.” This is explained by Mar: “One who walks even four cubits with upright posture is as if they knock out the legs of the Shekhinah, for it is written (in Isaiah 6) that God’s glory fills the entire world.” I understand Mar to mean that when a sage adopts a position of confidence, even of insolence, they somehow undermine the divine presence. When sages walk with humility, then they acknowledge the divine presence in the world.

I remember the first time that I visited Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood and noticed men walking with their heads bent down, and wondered what was going on. I think they were taking this teaching quite literally, seeking to demonstrate humility with their posture, and to acknowledge that divinity fills the world. But my mother z”l always taught me to stand straight! Isn’t standing upright a positive thing?

Indeed, elsewhere in rabbinic literature standing upright is seen as a state of redemption, not just from Egyptian slavery but from the sorrows of this world altogether. The word קוֹמְמִיּוּת is read as a plural form—two heights—to mean that future humans will be twice as tall as Adam the First, who himself was a giant. If we are virtuous then our children will stand taller than we do (Sanhedrin 100a; Bereshit Rabbah 12:6). Height and posture are indications of our status. When we are burdened by sin then we are weighed down and reduced in stature. When we act virtuously, then we are lifted up and elevated. Standing upright is not necessarily a sign of arrogance; it is also a promise of redemption.

We see this aspiration for upright posture in the liturgy, specifically in the Ahavah Rabbah blessing that precedes the morning Shema. We pray, “walk us upright to our land” (ותוליכנו קוממיות לארצנו) though our Israeli siddur V’Ani Tefilati emends the text to “walk us upright within our land” (ותוליכנו קוממיות בארצנו). Walking upright is seen not as a form of insolence, but rather of liberty and dignity. I think it also refers to walking with integrity, and to pursuing justice, as we read in Deut. 6:18. It is an aspiration, and often in our lives, a blessed reality.

The ambiguity surrounding upright posture is a constructive tension, I think. It is good to be humbled, and it is good to be dignified. A person who is so humble that they cannot walk properly and accomplish their work in the world is not living up to their potential. And a person who proudly prances about denies the assistance upon which they depend from God and other people. We signify the ambiguity in our worship by bending our knees and bowing four times during the Amidah, but standing up straight at the divine Name. Humble we are, but dignified too, even before God. Posture indicates our internal state; both humility and confidence are required to partner with God, to make the entire world truly reflect the divine glory.

ויקרא פרשת בחקותי פרק כו פסוק יג

(יג) אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִהְיֹת לָהֶם עֲבָדִים וָאֶשְׁבֹּר מֹטֹת עֻלְּכֶם וָאוֹלֵךְ אֶתְכֶם קוֹמְמִיּוּת:

רש”י ויקרא פרשת בחקותי פרק כו פסוק יג

קוממיות – בקומה זקופה:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף מג עמוד ב

ואל יהלך בקומה זקופה – דאמר מר: המהלך בקומה זקופה אפילו ארבע אמות, כאילו דוחק רגלי שכינה, דכתיב: מלא כל הארץ כבודו.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף ק עמוד א

מיתיבי: ואולך אתכם קוממיות. רבי מאיר אומר: מאתים אמה, כשתי קומות של אדם הראשון. רבי יהודה אומר: מאה אמה, כנגד היכל וכותליו, שנאמר אשר בנינו כנטעים מגדלים בנעוריהם בנותינו כזויות מחטבות תבנית היכל וגו’. כי קאמר רבי יוחנן – לכוי דבי זיקא.

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה יב סימן ו

רבי ברכיה בשם רבי שמואל אמר אף על פי שנבראו הדברים על מליאתן כיון שחטא אדה”ר נתקלקלו, ועוד אינן חוזרין לתקונן עד שיבא בן פרץ שנא’ (רות ד) אלה תולדות פרץ מלא, בשביל ו’ דברים שיחזרו, ואלו הן, זיוו, חייו, קומתו, פירות הארץ, ופירות האילן, ומאורות, זיוו מנין, שנאמר (שופטים ה) ואוהביו כצאת השמש בגבורתו, חייו מנין, שנא’ (ישעיה סה) כי כימי העץ ימי עמי וגו’, תני ר”ש בן יוחאי אומר אין עץ אלא תורה, היך מה דאת אמר (משלי ג) עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה, קומתו מנין שנאמר (ויקרא כו) ואולך אתכם קוממיות, תני רבי חייא בקומה זקופה ולא יראים מכל בריה, רבי יודן אומר מאה אמה כאדם הראשון, ר”ש אמר מאתים אמה, ר”א בר ר”ש אמר שלש מאות, קוממאה, מיות מאתים, רבי אבהו אמר תשע מאות אמה, רבי ברכיה בשם רבי דוסא אמר טעמיה דרבי אבהו מהכא כי כימי העץ ימי עמי כשקמה הזו שהיא עושה בארץ שש מאות שנה, והוולד יוצא ממעי אמו באמה גדומה, צא וחשוב אמה ומחצה בכל שנה, הרי תשע מאות אמה, פירות הארץ ופירות האילן מניין, שנא’ (זכריה ח) כי זרע השלום הגפן תתן פריה וגו’, מאורות מנין שנאמר (ישעיה ל) והיה אור הלבנה כאור החמה וגו’.

שיר השירים רבה (וילנא) פרשה א ד”ה א כאהלי קדר

תני רבי חייא (ויקרא כו) ואולך אתכם קוממיות, בקומה זקופה שאינן יראין מכל בריה

דברים פרשת ואתחנן פרק ו פסוק יח, יח

(יח) וְעָשִׂיתָ הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵי ה’ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וּבָאתָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ:

The Palace of Torah Expanded: Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5781

For many modern readers, engaging with Torah presents a paradox. Biblical and rabbinic voices reaching us from the distant past are like starlight emitted millennia ago—brilliant and often shockingly current, but also artifacts from light sources that may have dimmed or even expired. This paradox can be constructive, drawing modern readers out of our own cultural assumptions, challenging us to notice wonders that we might otherwise miss. The Torah’s poetry, its stirring demands for justice, and its vast system of devotional rites prime us for faith and sanctity. And when we encounter a Torah text that rings false or hurtful, we may use that encounter to clarify our own understanding, to articulate our community’s sacred values. This responsive reading method allows modern Jews to embrace Torah as an etz hayim, a living tree with deep roots, whose branches continuously expand in delightful new directions.

We encounter this paradox already in the first chapter of Genesis. It is a wondrous and inspiring account of the origin of life on earth. The Torah declares everything wrought by the Creator to be good, understands humanity to be fashioned in the divine image, and teaches people to take responsibility for others and for the world itself. We may read these texts dozens or hundreds of times over the course of our lives, cherishing them and gaining insight even if their central premise—creation of the Universe over the course of a week—is falsified by modern science. Like ancient starlight reaching modern eyes, the words of Torah convey wonder even when their original radiance must be refracted through a new lens.

When we reach Parashat Aharei Mot–Kedoshim the paradoxical encounter with Torah reaches a new intensity. Many of the Torah’s most powerful and meaningful ideas are found in these chapters. We learn to love our neighbor as ourselves, to dignify our elders, to respect and protect people living with disability, and to create a livable spiritual practice (vehai bahem—live through the mitzvot, Lev. 18:5). Some of its commandments such as the prohibition of incest and adultery remain compelling, and others such as the ban on mixed species challenge us with their obscurity. However, some statements found here are foreign and hurtful to contemporary readers.

When the Torah prohibits sexual intercourse between two men, calling their lovemaking an abomination, there is no avoiding our discomfort and increasingly our disagreement with this ancient text. The Rabbis gifted us with techniques of non-literal interpretation, and modern readers have offered more acceptable approaches to these verses. For example, they might be read to prohibit only cultic, or coercive, or unloving, or incestuous sex between men. Still, the most honest and useful approach is to admit that these verses have been understood for millennia to condemn sexual intimacy between men. Today we understand this ban to be hurtful and oppressive. What is to be done?

Every year thousands of Jews present essays and speeches struggling with these texts, using them as a foil for our own evolving understanding of gender and sexuality. This itself is a redemptive response, but we also need to revise communal norms. Within Conservative Judaism we have tried different approaches, some effective but none entirely satisfying. Fifteen years ago, I joined with two other rabbis in composing a responsum that placed the Torah’s heteronormative assumptions in tension with its own teachings about human dignity and the value of intimate partnership in life.

We argued that the Torah’s declaration that “it is not good for a person to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), its commandment to love one another as ourselves, and its warning to avoid humiliating and harming others were all in tension with the ban found here on gay sex. So too with the expansions added by the Rabbis on sex between women: the cultural assumptions of their time undermined some of the Rabbis’ most beautiful teachings about respecting and protecting one another. The ancient Rabbis said, “So great is human dignity that it supersedes a negative principle of Torah” (BT Berakhot 19b and elsewhere). As modern rabbis we applied this powerful idea to our contemporary reality and to protect the dignity of all people in our day.

I would like to take this opportunity, nearly fifteen years later, to appreciate the positive impact of our responsum, and to revise some of its less beneficial claims. On the positive side, almost immediately after our paper was approved in 2006, Jews and other people of faith began to discuss sexuality through the lens of dignity. The tone of the discourse changed, certainly within our own denomination, and so did the policies. Synagogues, schools, and camps changed their rhetoric, and queer youth, adults, and families were gradually, and then suddenly, embraced as dignified members and leaders of their communities. Our seminaries in New York and Los Angeles quickly shifted to admitting gay and lesbian applicants, as did our school in Jerusalem five years later. Dozens of remarkable rabbis and cantors who openly identify as LGBTQI+ now lead our communities, and we have benefited from a richer and more diverse covenantal community.

It is hard to remember just how different things were fifteen or twenty years ago. Encountering ancient text on matters so intimate is always difficult. Sometimes a text from only fifteen years ago can feel ancient, and I admit that this is true of my own work.

We used the word “homosexuality” in our title to signal a scholarly and unbiased approach that might convince skeptical readers, including fellow law committee members whose votes we needed. But for many readers that term already felt passe and even hurtful in its clinical tone. We should have been consistent in using the language preferred by gay and lesbian Jews, for whose benefit the paper was intended.

Our core halakhic claim was that sexual orientation is a fixed feature for many people, and that the prior demand that gay and lesbian people suppress their sexuality and try to pass as straight was demeaning, cruel, and futile. As such, it violated the rabbinic principle of human dignity, causing shame and suffering, which are themselves biblically forbidden. In passing, we commented that for bisexual people it might be difficult but not impossible to restrict themselves to the ancient heterosexual norms. This comment was problematic at the time, and has caused pain and anger, which I deeply regret. Bisexuality is its own identity, often misunderstood, that deserves respect and protection from hurtful comments and policies. Our paper should either have included bisexuals in its conceptual framework, or left their questions for a different responsum, much as we left transgender issues for a different project.

The interpretation of Torah is an evolving and expanding activity. For millennia male rabbis argued that only men were obligated to study Torah, and they fought to preserve their monopoly on the spiritual inheritance that rightfully belongs to all Jews. Men built this patriarchy, and men may be partners in the task of dismantling it. But it is the scholarship and activism of women that have been the driving forces in this change. The same is true of LGBTQI+ Jews who have emerged from being objects of rabbinic interest to subjects and authors of Jewish discourse. The prior closeting and oppression of these Jews is an ongoing source of pain and shame; the new era of openness and gay pride is the beginning of a holier and greater stage of Jewish history.

As I approach the end of my term as a JTS dean, I am inspired and thrilled by the diverse identities of our students and alumni. Many of our wisest and most prominent teachers today have identities that were recently excluded from leadership. This is true not only for sexual and gender identity, but also for Jews of Color, and those living with disability. As a straight white male who was raised Jewish, I recognize how privileged my position has been. I have committed myself to removing barriers so that the Torah can be enriched by diverse perspectives, and our communities can rise to their potential. Much more work remains to expand the palace of Torah so that its paradoxes can become constructive challenges. Only then may we fulfill the Torah’s most expansive command, “You shall be holy, for I Adonai your God am Holy.”

First published on jtsa.edu. The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).

Feel the Love this Pesah: Shabbat HaGadol 5781

What’s love got to do with it? We are accustomed to thinking of Passover as the festival of freedom, of liberation from enslavement, the march from Mitzrayim to Sinai, and on to the Land of Israel and national independence. The themes of Passover are those of justice, moral purpose, resilience and strength. Its foods symbolize toughness—flat breads for the road, maror and salt water to remind us of our bitter experiences, haroset to approximate the mortar the ancient slaves used to build edifices for their oppressors. Many of its melodies are survival songs, not celebrations of plenty. Yes, we relax into the seder, reclining and eventually eating and drinking luxuriously, but it is the meal of survivors, akin almost to the se’udat havra’ah eaten by mourners after a loss. What’s love got to do with it?

Love is the hidden emotion in Pesah,  but it is there if you seek it. Our greatest love poem, the Song of Songs, has been associated with Passover for well over a millennium. Tractate Sofrim, a composition from the land of Israel edited around the 8th century, remarks that it is chanted on the final two nights of the festival, but does not provide a reason. Later texts such as Sefer Abudraham (Spain, 13c) provide a link between the Song and Passover. In Chapter 1, verse 9, the male lover states, “I have likened you, my darling, to a mare in Pharaoh’s chariots” לְסֻסָתִי בְּרִכְבֵי פַרְעֹה דִּמִּיתִיךְ רַעְיָתִי. We must admit that this link feels tenuous, and one wonders how it even works as a romantic image. True, other ancient texts from Greece and Arabia likewise compare beautiful women to horses (for example Helen of Troy in Theocritus, and Lyde in Horace’s Odes–See Marvin Pope’s 1970 essay).

Michael Fishbane prepares us for the oddity of the Song’s romantic imagery, here comparing a young woman to a fancy horse, but advises, “a modern reader must pause and let the images have their primary effect—which is to create a strong sensual association between a feature of the human body and the world of nature (animals and topography). In so doing, one must try to cultivate a literary competence that appreciates the sensibilities of a shepherd’s heart over the theological sense of the (modern) interpreting mind” (JPS commentary, Introduction xxvi). There you have it—Passover challenges our imaginations, not only to experience enslavement despite our own happier circumstances, but also to feel love as it may have seemed to an ancient shepherd.

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Confessions of Joy: Vayikra 5781

The Hebrew word “semikhah” in various forms alludes to drawing close, leaning into or supporting another, or laying on of hands. In that purposeful contact there is a transfer of energy and the establishment of connection between two living beings. When Moses lays hands on Joshua, he confers spiritual power, ordaining Joshua as his successor. Like one candle lighting another, there is no sense of diminishment in the power of Moses as he ordains Joshua.

At other times, however, the practice of semikhah (or the transitive hasmakhah) is understood to transfer a quality from one being to another. This week we read that the priest is to lay hands on the burnt offering, “that it may be acceptable on his behalf, in expiation for him” (Lev. 1:4, trans. NJPS). How exactly does this work? It seems from another context, Lev. 16:21, that physical contact was not the only component of the ritual. There was also a spoken intention, a confession of sin, that effected the transfer of negative energy, allowing for the priest and the community that he served to achieve atonement.

This brings us to the role of confession in the ritual offering. One would expect to find this verbal pairing only with regard to the hattat, or purification offering (and the similar asham). After all, the other sacrifices such as olah and minhah are about dedication, while the shelamim are about thanksgiving. For such offerings it would seem that confession is inappropriate. And yet, our text about the burnt offering implies a confession even if it is not explicit. Moreover, in Second Chronicles 30:22, we are told that in the days of King Hezekiah the Levites offered sacrifices of well-being (shelamim) and “confessed to the Lord.” Maimonides understands this not to be so much a confession (for wrong doing) but rather an expression of praise. But it is the same word!

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The Festival of Education: Shabbat HaHodesh 5781

Passover is sometimes called “the festival of education” (חג החינוך). I have been unable to find this expression in pre-modern sources, but it accords with classic rabbinic approaches to the holiday. For our sages the art of pedagogy includes multi-sensory inputs of sight, sound, touch and taste, as well as differentiated instruction for various learning styles, as seen in the questions of the four children.

The sages imagined Moses as a student struggling to understand the very first commandment that he receives in Exodus 12:2, “this month is the first of months for you, for the months of the year,” until God provides a visual cue. The word “this” (הזה) is understood by the Rabbis to imply a visual image. In Mekhilta D”RY we learn that Moses struggles to understand how to declare the new moon until God, as it were, points it out in the sky.

The Talmud (RH 20a) asks rhetorically whether later sages might fix the calendar by adding a day to the month just as they do by adding a second month of Adar seven out of every nineteen years. It immediately rejects this possibility based on our verse—when you see the new moon in the sky, you must declare the new month without delay. This implies that education requires a reality check—there is a danger that bookish learning can draw the student away from natural phenomena. The appearance of the moon in the sky impels a ritual response. Therefore, the sages need to station themselves outside to examine the night sky, and not seclude themselves entirely from the natural world.

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Purification after Violence: Parah 5781

Tony Hicks was fourteen years old in 1995 when he shot and killed a college student named Tariq Khamisa in a gang-related robbery. Hicks was convicted of murder, and was imprisoned until 2019, but meanwhile something quite unusual occurred. Five years after the crime, Tariq’s father Azim visited Tony in prison, and gradually the two men became friends. It took another fifteen years, but eventually Tariq’s sister Tasreen also visited Tony in prison, in 2015. They too became close friends. You can hear their own description of the first meeting in a new episode of Storycorps. It is now 26 years since Tony’s terrible crime, and the painful loss that he caused remains forever. And yet reconciliation of Tariq’s family with his killer has proven redemptive in all of their lives. Tony says that getting to know Tasreen’s children—the nephews and nieces of the man he killed before they were born—adds layers of sorrow for his terrible mistake. But layers of forgiveness have also accrued, allowing all of them to grow in their humanity, to honor the memory of Tariq Khamisa.

I tell this story by way of introducing Shabbat Parah, the week when we are commanded to read Numbers 19, the description of the red heifer ritual. I understand Parah as an antidote to Zakhor, the special Shabbat preceding Purim when we are commanded to remember the vile attack of Amalek, and paradoxically, to wipe out the memory of the very people we are remembering. Zakhor is a Shabbat dedicated to remembering and combatting evil. If Amalek murdered Israelites, then Israelites should wreak revenge by killing Amalekites, as Samuel does with King Agag in the haftarah, and Mordecai does with Haman and his sons in the Megillah. There is a cruel realism to this commandment—genocidal hatred remains in the world, and this fact requires recognition, remembrance and forceful response.

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A Tabernacle for Today: Terumah/Zakhor 5781

כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל כֵּלָיו וְכֵן תַּעֲשׂוּ:

“And so shall they do,” is an unremarkable coda to God’s command to Moses that Israel must build a tabernacle in Exodus 25:9. Could this little phrase be a marker for our kind of Judaism, linked powerfully to the past but proudly innovative? That sounds like a stretch, but let’s try. The verse states that the people of Israel should make the tabernacle precisely according to the specifications shown to Moses on Mount Sinai. Various Midrashim depict God demonstrating the design of the ark, table and menorah through fiery holograms in the sky, which is fanciful but reflective of the Torah’s insistence that Moses reproduce the designs “shown” to him.

That coda, “and so shall they do,” could mean simply—tell the people to do what I taught you. But because of a claimed extra “vov” (“and”), the rabbis read this phrase to refer not to the initial construction, but to future generations of Temple builders. This raises the question—should future temples of the Jews be built to the precise measurements of the original tabernacle, which was designed for portability, or might they be altered to reflect the grander setting of a permanent location in Jerusalem?

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Reclaiming the Crown of Torah: Mishpatim 5781

In the Song of Songs (5:2) we read a romantic verse, “I was asleep, but my heart was awake.” אני ישנה ולבי ער—the plain sense of the verse is that the time of sleep is also a time of longing. The rabbis interpret this verse to mean that the people of Israel before Sinai were asleep in the sense of inaction—they had no mitzvot to perform, but their hearts were awake, yearning to connect to God.

This yearning for Torah, this desire for action, explains their remarkable response in Parashat Mishpatim when they say, “all that God has commanded, we will do, and we will hear,” כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. Arguably this is the best line given by the Torah to the people of Israel. But what exactly does it mean? Let us look at the context:

Back in chapter 20, the people respond to hearing the Ten Commandments with terror. They tell Moses to go speak with God and fill them in later, “lest we die” פן נמות. And so, Moses speaks with God, and this week in Mishpatim, he shares many rules with the people.

In Chapter 24, Moses tells the people all the words of God, all the rules. As promised, they respond enthusiastically, “And the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה. Notice that they use only one verb—we will do it, נַעֲשֶׂה.

But the passage continues. Moses writes down “all the words of the Lord, and then in the morning he builds an altar, offers sacrifices and reads the Torah aloud to the people. At this point they respond, “All that God has spoken, we will do it, and we will heed it,” נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. What’s the difference between the two responses?

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Oh Freedom: Bishalah 5781

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom
Oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free

These stirring words from the post-Civil War anthem have been recorded and performed at important moments in American history. Odetta recorded a great version in 1956. Joan Baez performed it in 1963 at the March on Washington. The song gives me the chills, because it holds up freedom as the greatest good, greater than life itself. Black history month begins on Monday, and this is an appropriate moment to think about the differential experience of freedom in this land.

My brother just digitized a 1975 recording of my great grandparents, Sarah and Sam Mazer, who arrived in America on February 2, 1910. Sam was fleeing the Russian army’s “khopers” who could have conscripted him for 25 years. Both were eager to live free in America, and with many ups and downs, they did. This land was and is a place of freedom and opportunity for most American Jews. But for the brutalized people who first sang, “Oh Freedom,” America was not a land of freedom and opportunity, but of enslavement, cruelty, terror, and oppression.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad depicts a desperate flight from slavery to freedom through the experience of Cora. In the following passage she and Caesar have narrowly escaped capture:

They stopped running when they realized they had no inkling of where they were headed. Cora saw nothing for the darkness and her tears. Caesar had rescued his waterskin but they had lost the rest of their provisions. They had lost Lovey. He oriented himself with the constellations and the runaways stumbled on, impelled into the night. They didn’t speak for hours. From the trunk of their scheme, choices and decisions sprouted like branches and shoots. If they had turned the girl back at the swamp. If they had taken a deeper route around the farms. If Cora had taken the rear and been the one grabbed by the two men. If they had never left at all.

No wonder that the song “Oh Freedom” asserts that freedom is the greatest good, greater than life itself. Nothing is certain in this life, but a decision to turn from slavery to freedom requires courage, strength, and fortune.

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Sworn to Sacred Service: Bo 5781

The most powerful ritual in American life is the oath of office administered to our President. The text is prescribed by the Constitution, but its choreography is a matter of convention. Most Presidents have placed their left hand on a Bible as they raise their right and swear to execute their office faithfully, to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This ritual signals solemnity and anticipation for the work awaiting our new leader.

The weaker arm (left, for most of us) is strengthened by contact with Scripture, as if to say that true strength comes not from muscles but from virtue. This gesture recalls Deuteronomy 17:18-19 where the new king is commanded to write a copy of the Torah, to read it and keep it close by so that they will learn to revere God and guard the divine precepts. This pose also reminds me of wearing tefillin, with the left hand linked to the divine word, and the right ready for resolute and righteous action.

Those who take an oath—whether of testimony, of office, or of military commission—raise their right hand, alluding perhaps to Isaiah 62:8, “the Lord has sworn by His right hand, by His mighty arm” (NJPS translation). In the civic oath ritual, the President commits to guard our American covenant with faithfulness, to draw strength from the people, and to hold nothing higher than their constitutional duties.

The raised right hand is open and empty, which to me implies transparency and readiness for action. One cannot commit fully to a new task while clinging still to an old one. This point is made in our Torah portion, just before the people of Israel commences its duties in worshipping God. Chapter 12 of Exodus contains instructions for the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, beginning with the designation of the animal. Moses calls the elders of Israel and says to them, “Draw out and take yourselves sheep according to your clans and slaughter the Passover offering” (Exod. 12:21, trans. Robert Alter).

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Hopping Mad in Mitzrayim: Va’Era 5781

Here come the plagues: blood, frogs, vermin…. The first triad relates to the Nile, whose “bloody” waters (reddened perhaps from sediment and algae washed down by heavy rains from the Ethiopian highlands) kill off the fish and drive the frogs up on the land. The rotten flesh produces kinnim, maybe a type of fly or mosquito, that torments the population. Swarming mosquitos are surely loathsome, but frogs remain the most charismatic creatures in the plague narrative.

Ancient Egyptians venerated a frog-headed goddess named Heqet, who was associated with fertility. But the river had been used to kill off the Israelite boys. As such these first plagues may have been intended as “measure for measure” for Pharaoh’s genocidal attack. Since the plagues rise vertically from ground to sky, they teach both Egyptians and Israelites that the LORD is sovereign over heaven and earth.

Frogs are unusual messengers for such an exalted theological lesson. They may not be cute, but neither are they terrifying. As the fetching “Frog Song” puts it, “One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed there were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head, frogs on his nose, frogs on his toes, frogs here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere!” The comical potential of this reptilian plague was not lost on our ancient sages. Rabbi Akiva notices a shift from plural to singular in Exodus 8:2: “Aaron reached his hand out over the Egyptian waters and the frog rose and covered the land of Egypt.” Can you imagine Akiva’s Godzilla scale amphibian? Apparently this was too much for some of his peers.

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