Purim פורים

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…

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…

Coming Clean: Vayikra/Zakhor 5779

False oaths are an especially pernicious form of social crime because they cause serious harm to individuals while also imperiling an entire system. Oaths were administered using the divine name (and in rabbinic Judaism, while holding a Torah scroll or pair of tefillin), and so, false oaths were also viewed as a form of heresy….

From Mishkan to the Mind of God: VaYakheil/Shekalim 5779

What are you thinking? That is an interesting question, but perhaps more important is, how are you thinking? Consciousness is one of the most mysterious aspects of our existence. We know that we have brains, and that they have mechanisms for receiving stimuli, but how does one go from mechanical information processing to consciousness? And,…

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…

Hear the Voice of Esther: Zakhor 5778

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…

Make Shushan Great Again? (Parody) Purim 5777

Shittah Mishubeshet is a collection of medieval debates about the laws of Purim which exists only in manuscript form, and that in a single copy held by the venerable rare book collection of JTS. Unfortunately, the collection has been removed to a black site for the foreseeable future, leaving us unable to clarify its important…

On the Road with Amalek: Zakhor 5777

This Shabbat is both Titzaveh and Shabbat Zakhor—in addition to all the normal reasons to go to shul and hear the Torah, there is a special commandment to listen to the Zakhor passage and think about the continued danger of genocidal hatred in the world. The Torah states in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 that Amalek did something…

Amalek Inside–Zakhor 5776

It is considered a mitzvah this Shabbat for every Jew to “remember what Amalek did to you,” to blot out the memory of Amalek, and not to forget. This mitzvah is easily fulfilled by listening to the maftir reading in synagogue on the Shabbat before Purim, but it is not at all easy to understand the…

Hold Your Hands Up! VaYakheil-Shekalim 5776

Sometimes it is not ornament but infrastructure which is the most interesting and enduring feature of a building. The tabernacle was a beautiful building with bronze, silver, gold as well as luxurious and colorful fabrics. Underneath all that was the acacia wood, atzei shittim, with upright planks that were held together by staves—also made of acacia and…

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…

A royal dress? Purim 5775

Purim is our festival of contradictions and hidden meanings. This year I suddenly noticed one detail that has been hiding in plain sight—the color of Esther’s royal dress. Was it blue, or gold? The Megillah itself is maddeningly ambiguous. We read in Chapter 5, “On the third day, Esther was garbed in royalty.” The ancient…

Confronting Contemporary Amalek: Zakhor 5775

I recently read Roz Chast’s memoir about the senescence and death of her parents entitled, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” The title refers to her parents’ strident refusal, even in their mid-90s, to discuss their failing bodies and to prepare for the inevitable. The book is a brutally honest memoir by their daughter…