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,…

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…

True leadership: Humility, Compassion, Integrity. Shemot 5781

What was Moses doing just before his first divine encounter? The Torah’s description seems quotidian, utterly unremarkable. He was tending Jethro’s flock, and “he drove the flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1). That is, the moments preceding the theophany at the burning bush were spent caring for…

Menorah Meditations: Hanukkah 5781

Aryeh Kaplan’s classic book, Jewish Meditation presents many techniques for focusing one’s attention in order to perceive dimensions of reality that are otherwise hidden. I love his discussion of the letters shin and mem. The sound we make with sin/shin is a hissing noise, a chaotic cacophony. In contrast, the mem, Kaplan writes, “is pure…

Earthy Expertise: Vayishlah 5781

Here is a verse on which I have never commented before: “These were the descendants of Seir the Horite who were settled in the land: Lotan, and Shoval, Tzivon Anah. Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan”(Gen.36:20f). I know! How have I allowed such a scintillating text to escape examination? Perhaps I have been distracted by Jacob’s midnight…

Thanksgiving in the Face of Sorrow: Vayetze 5781

On the face of it, Leah has been dealt a dreadful hand. Her marriage to Jacob was born of subterfuge, and the Torah relates that “God saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah’s fertility failed to win her husband’s affections as testified by her statements in naming their…

Making Love in the Field: Hayei Sarah 5781

Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. He raised his eyes and saw camels approaching (Gen. 24:63). This scene, this moment before Isaac and Rebecca first meet, is dramatic and full of mystery. The two protagonists have come physically close, but remain each in their own world, and that never really changes….

Dreaming of the Future: Vayera 5781

Once again the pollsters blew it. As in 2016, so in 2020, predictions about election results have born little resemblance to the outcome. Why are we surprised? It is hard enough to describe events that have already happened with accuracy and perspective. The future? Who are we kidding? No doubt, explanations will be found for…

An Activist Covenant: Lekh Lekha 5781

Destiny is a seductive concept. The idea that our personal and even national history is somehow predetermined can be comforting, especially when hazards abound and the best path forward is hard to discern. Historian Niall Ferguson surveys the tenacity of deterministic thinking among religious and secular thinkers through the ages in his book Virtual History….

Miracle of Miracles: Noah 5781

What to make of miracles? They are among the most dramatic and beloved features of biblical narratives, but are distant from what most believe about reality. Wait, are they? Many modern people operate on a split screen, their rational analyses coexisting with magical thinking about fate, luck and miracles. Neuroscience has alerted us to the…

Rebounding from Crisis with Strength: Bereshit 5781

Like millions of American children in the 1970s, I tuned in weekly to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The opening sequence showed skiers gracefully racing down a mountain, and then spectacularly wiping out while the narrator promised viewers “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Something tragic and true was contained in this…

Yom Kippur 5781: By Consent of the High Court

Kol Nidre begins with a dramatic declaration, “by consent of the court on high, and by consent of the court below, we permit prayer with transgressors.” This formula is attested already in the circle of Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg (Germany, 13C) as reported by his student Samson b. Tzadok (Tashbetz Katan 131), and then in…