Passover פסח

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…

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…

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…

Oh Freedom: Bishalah 5781

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedomOh freedom over meAnd before I’d be a slaveI’d be buried in my graveAnd 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…

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…

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…

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…

Become a Mitzvah Agent: HaHodesh 5779

Our third Torah reading this Shabbat (Ex. 12:1-20) is the fourth and final special maftir related to Purim and Pesah. As with the entire complex of Passover rituals there is an intentional blending of individual and group identity. When each individual Israelite and then Jew participates in these rituals, they gently detach themselves from their…

Stupid Anger: Shmini/Parah 5779

Anger is often an understandable reaction, and yet it can be one of the most destructive and debilitating of emotions. It is hard to imagine how Moses feels when his two nephews Nadav and Avihu are struck dead in the middle of the inaugural service for the tabernacle. Guilty? Terrified? Shocked? All of these, I…

Guns and Moses: Shabbat HaGadol 5778

Americans have become desensitized to the phenomenon of gun violence and explosives that can suddenly and indiscriminately mar and destroy innocent life. Somehow mass murder has come to seem normal, and our political class is quick to rehearse the same tired lines about thoughts and prayers for the victims, denunciation of the perpetrators, and claims…

On Kashering Hands for Pesah (parody): Purim 5778

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…

Tying Up the Ram, Trying to Be Free: Shabbat HaGadol 5776

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes taught a course that I took one year in college, and I still savor his exploration of magical realism with our class. One of his grand themes was the elliptical nature of time. Some cultures, he claimed, view time in cyclical terms, with each development merely a return to a…

Babies as Spiritual Giants: Tazria/HaHodesh/RH 5776

 Newborn babies are miraculous to see, and even more remarkable to hold. To let their tiny fingers curl around your pinkie and breathe in their new-to-the-world fragrance is divine, but sometimes this pleasure isn’t possible. A few days ago I met a newborn so small that even his parents can’t hold him—at just 2 lbs, this…

Disarming the Angel of Death: Pesah 5775

There is a wild story at the end of the seventh chapter of B. Ketubot about Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi. He is praised for visiting patients afflicted with the dreaded “ra’atan” disease (apparently some sort of parasite in the skull) and studying Torah with them, even as his rabbinic colleagues fearfully kept their distance. I concede…

Withdraw Your Hands and Take Hold of Pesah: Shabbat HaGadol 5775

Shabbat HaGadol represents the internal emancipation that was the necessary precondition for the Exodus. Technically, the Israelites were still slaves on the tenth of the month, but when Moses called the elders of Israel and told them to pick out animals for the sacrifice, this was the moment when the people shifted their obedience from…

For the Sins of the Leader: VaYikra/HaHodesh 5775

If the first two books of Torah can be understood according to their Hebrew names—Bereshit, the book of origins, and Sh’mot, the book of names (or identities), then this week we begin Vayikra, the book of calling. We discover within it a divine calling—to approach the Tent of Meeting, just as Moses did, and to…

Redemption Begins Within: Parah 5775

Purim and Pesah are both festivals of redemption, serving as bookends in the final and first months of the Hebrew year. But Purim is by far the lesser holiday. True, the Jews of Persia escaped from Haman’s genocidal threat, but they then remained in a vulnerable position, and in the final chapters of the Megillah they…

Shabbat HaGadol 5774: Got Your Goat?

One kid, just one kid-חד גדיא, חד גדיא. Goats are the key connection between Parshat Aharei Mot and Shabbat HaGadol. Our portion features two goats that are the most visible signs of dedication and atonement of the Yom Kippur ritual, and it also offers a cryptic reference to Israel’s past history of goat worship. In…

Born Again: Tazria/HaHodesh 5774

One winter night some years ago I crossed the parking lot of Providence Hospital in Southfield, MI. Looking up, I saw a great cloud of steam rising from the heat grates, dramatically lit by floodlights mounted on the hospital roof. This dynamic swirling above the hospital, combined perhaps with the heaviness I felt in visiting…

Sacred BBQ: Shmini/Parah 5774

Spring has arrived, and with it the smell of sacred BBQ. I don’t mean that literally, especially with so many vegetarians in our community, but the confluence of Parshat Shmini and Shabbat Parah means that there is a great deal of attention paid to the selection, slaughter, sacrifice and eating of animals. Chapter 11 of…