Was Laban Really Worse than Pharaoh?

Was Laban Really Worse than Pharaoh?

Dec 2, 2022 By Avi Garelick | Commentary | Vayetzei

According to the Passover Haggadah, Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, is the archvillain of Jewish history, even more dangerous than the Pharaoh who enslaved the people of Israel and launched a campaign of male infanticide. Yet, after this provocative comparison, the Haggadah leaves the rest as an exercise for the reader. Laban “sought to uproot it all,” but how? What makes Laban so dangerous?

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Two Nations in Your Belly

Two Nations in Your Belly

Nov 25, 2022 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Toledot

In the world of the ancient Rabbis who gave us Judaism—the world of the Talmud and the Midrash, from the first century through the seventh century CE—our Rabbis identified Esau / Edom with the Roman Empire. In doing so, they took on both aspects of that Empire—the earlier pagan Roman Empire and the later Christian Roman Empire, and conflated them into one image of Esau, forever at odds with Jacob / Israel. For the Rabbis, Esau most often was depicted as the enemy, our oppressor, “The Man” who kept us beneath his boot.

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Rebecca the Patriarch

Rebecca the Patriarch

Nov 18, 2022 By Judith Hauptman | Commentary | Hayyei Sarah

This week’s parashah, Hayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18), is about continuing the line, producing progeny. The parashah opens with a report of Sarah’s death at 120 years old. It closes with a list of Abraham’s children from concubines and Ishmael’s many offspring (25:1–18). But the central story of the parashah, the entire chapter of Genesis 24, is about finding a wife for Isaac.

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Women of Faith

Women of Faith

Nov 11, 2022 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Vayera

Abraham passed God’s litmus test of faith. God commands Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac to the land of Moriah and kill him. Faithful Abraham does not hesitate. Genesis 22 may be the most loved and hated story in the Torah by every reader, no matter what their faith. Certainly, generations of Jews have struggled to make sense of this story, and of the father and God it portrays.

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Learning as a Lifelong Experience

Learning as a Lifelong Experience

Nov 4, 2022 By Edward L. Greenstein | Commentary | Lekh Lekha

An attentive reading of the Torah and of Parashat Lekh Lekha in particular leads to a very different understanding. Abraham was a learner—he needed to grow in his trust of the Deity, and in himself. In this sense, Abraham’s career models the path of a lifelong learner.

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After the Flood

After the Flood

Oct 28, 2022 By Alisa Braun | Commentary | Noah

Today it’s common to find divrei torah that use Parashat Noah to raise awareness about our impact on the environment. Yet I recently discovered a voice from the first stirrings of modernity that seemed to already intuit, within a theological framework, the devastating impact of humans on the global environment. For Obadiah Sforno (1475–1550), the “lawlessness” during the days of Noah did not just cause God to flood to earth. It was a force capable of ruining the climate and planet, and thereby shaping the course of human history ever after.

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The World of Creation in Each of Us

The World of Creation in Each of Us

Oct 21, 2022 By Israel Gordan | Commentary | Bereishit

One of the most well-known, and controversial, passages in the Torah comes after God creates man and woman: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep on earth’” (Gen. 1:28).

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Impermanence by Design

Impermanence by Design

Oct 14, 2022 By Grace Gleason | Commentary | Sukkot

If your sukkot are anything like mine, something usually falls off or blows away at some point during the week. This was true of my backyard sukkah in North Carolina, whose hanging decorations were not securely fastened enough to withstand the wind, and the skhakh of my Upper West Side balcony, which unfortunately ended up on someone else’s roof.

Sukkot are impermanent by design. This is our lesson and our meditation throughout the week. In the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 23a), our rabbis argue about how strong a wind a sukkah should be able to withstand in order to be considered kosher: does it need to be able to withstand a strong wind, or just average wind? We can feel the tension—on the one hand, we want our sukkot to be strong and sturdy, on the other hand, the holiday pushes us to acknowledge that they may just blow away. The Mishnah in Sukkah 22a suggests that in the ideal sukkah, one should be able to see stars through the roof—in order, I think, that we might contemplate the great expanse of the universe, and our relative temporality and insignificance.

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Making Every Word Count

Making Every Word Count

Oct 7, 2022 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Ha'azinu

Ha’azinu is remarkable in two respects: what it says, and how it chooses to say it. My focus here will be the latter, but let’s note with regard to the former that in this, his final address to the Children of Israel before a set of farewell blessings, Moses reviews all of his people’s past, present, and future. He begins by calling on the God who had called Israel into being and called him to God’s service. He reminds Israel that God has chosen them and still cares for their well-being. He prophesies that despite all that God and Moses have said and done, Israel will abandon God, as they had in the past. God will punish them, as in the past, but never to the point of utter destruction. In the end, God and Israel will reconcile.

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The Courage to Hope

The Courage to Hope

Sep 30, 2022 By Ayelet Cohen | Commentary | Vayeilekh | Rosh Hashanah | Shabbat Shuvah | Yom Kippur

Shabbat Shuvah represents the place between hope and fear; between transformation and unrealized aspirations. We may have made big promises on Rosh Hashanah, resolving to make significant changes in our lives, entering the year with a sense of excitement and optimism. But as Yom Kippur draws closer, we become more attuned to our own shortcomings. So much is beyond our control. Changing old patterns is arduous, the path uncertain. Confronting our own limitations, we can feel afraid and alone. The spiritual work of this moment lies in discerning the difference between acknowledging our limitations and succumbing to fear.

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Confronting Our “Concealed Things”

Confronting Our “Concealed Things”

Sep 23, 2022 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Nitzavim | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

The concealed things concern the Lord our God; but with overt matters, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (Deut. 29:28)
There is, however, another reading of this verse, given by Nahmanides (Ramban), in the 13th century, and it is one that forces us to a certain deeper level of introspection at this time of year.

Here’s a paraphrase of what he says: The “concealed things” are not sins committed by others that are out of our view, and thus out of our control. Rather, they are the sins committed by us, but that are nevertheless out of our view and awareness. As long as we are not aware of them, they will be known only to God. But they are only out of our control because they are not known to us.

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Count Your Blessings

Count Your Blessings

Sep 16, 2022 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo is a Torah portion with three parts of interest. First, there are the curses and imprecations with which God threatens the Jewish people if we do not do God’s will. As we do when we read the Torah in synagogue, we will quickly and quietly move past the scary stuff.

Second, we are commanded to bring our first fruits to the Jerusalem Temple once we have settled the land. And then we are commanded to offer them to the priest in acknowledgement of God’s beneficence. When we do so, we recite a fixed liturgy, reinforced, no doubt, by hearing the many Israelites ahead of us in the line reciting the exact same words as the priest prompts them. “Repeat after me . . .” he says.
Arami oved avi—My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5)

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What Does the Torah Really Say about Cross-Dressing?

What Does the Torah Really Say about Cross-Dressing?

Sep 9, 2022 By Joy Ladin | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

Every year, Ki Tetzei returns us to the only verse of the Torah that seems to speak about transgender and nonbinary people, particularly about those like me who used to be known as “transsexuals,” people born physically male or female who identify so strongly with the opposite gender that we can only live authentically as that gender: A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to your God. (Num. 22:5)

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Prophets of Faith

Prophets of Faith

Sep 2, 2022 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Shofetim

I often distinguish between faith and belief and consider myself to be a person of faith. Whereas belief implies a degree of certainty that I am uncomfortable with, faith embraces doubt. To my ear, the statement that I believe something to be true communicates that you know something is true. The statement that I have faith that something is true suggests that you desire or suspect something is true. Belief seems restrictive to me—confined by only what is known or can be known—and is at risk of dogmatism.

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The Meaning of Repetition, Repetition

The Meaning of Repetition, Repetition

Aug 26, 2022 By David Zev Moster | Commentary | Re'eh | Shabbat Rosh Hodesh

When it comes to reading the Tanakh, much is lost in translation, so even a bit of knowledge of Biblical Hebrew can go a long way. Here is one grammatical insight into this week’s parashah, Parashat Re’eh. According to Deuteronomy 14:22, Israelite farmers must tithe the produce of their field שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, shanah shanah, which […]

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Raising Children in a Land of Plenty

Raising Children in a Land of Plenty

Aug 19, 2022 By Gavriella Kornsgold | Commentary | Eikev

The book of Hosea captures the problem of human nature in Parashat Eikev when God proclaims, “I did know you in the wilderness, in the land of great drought. When they were fed, they became full; they were filled and their heart was exalted; therefore they have forgotten me” (Hos. 13:5–6). There are endless historical and contemporary examples that mirror this cycle, such as the immigrant parent who achieves worldly success and becomes worried about the spiritual well-being of their children. Or, to take a scene from popular culture, after the beloved Rocky wins the heavyweight boxing title, he succumbs to the lure of fame, spoils his child, and loses his edge—the eye of the tiger. A close reading of chapter eight in this week’s parashah teaches us how our tradition responds to the perennial problem of raising children in a land of plenty.

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Never Too Late to Get Close

Never Too Late to Get Close

Aug 12, 2022 By Benjy Forester | Commentary | Va'et-hannan

From a young age, I knew I was supposed to like Neil Young. The stereo was turned up whenever his signature falsetto voice came on the radio, and before my bar mitzvah I was taken to see the 2006 documentary concert/film Neil Young: Heart of Gold. My initiation was complete with my first Neil concert […]

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Moses’s Retirement Speech

Moses’s Retirement Speech

Aug 5, 2022 By Raymond Scheindlin | Commentary

Deuteronomy, which we begin reading this week, is devoted to Moses’s farewell to his people. Deuteronomy is preeminently Moses’s book; in it, Moses mostly speaks in his own voice, so that instead of the ever-recurring third-person opening line “And the Lord spoke to Moses . . .,” we read “The Lord spoke to me” (Deut. 2:2). Deuteronomy contains not one but a series of farewell speeches and prophetic poems in which Moses recalls the forty years since the Exodus from Egypt and looks ahead to the future in the promised land.

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Do Women’s Vows Count?: A 21st Century Problem

Do Women’s Vows Count?: A 21st Century Problem

Jul 29, 2022 By Stephanie Ruskay | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

In Parashat Mattot Chapter 30, we learn that if a woman makes a vow, her father or husband can invalidate it on the day on which he hears about it. If he does not invalidate it that day, he is culpable if she breaks it. The only women who can make their own vows and not have them invalidated by a man are divorcées and widows. At other moments in my life, I would have glossed over this section, determined to focus on something more inspiring, and less offensive. Now, I am leaning into it.

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The Liberator and the Zealot

The Liberator and the Zealot

Jul 22, 2022 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Pinehas

In his recently published book, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom,  H.W. Brands contrasts the attitudes of Brown and Lincoln toward slavery, and the methods used by each to end it. In doing so, he makes the case that the terms “liberator” and “zealot” accurately encapsulate the role of each in abolishing slavery.  

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